Aching God by Mike Shel

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Rating 8.7/10
Shel was able to capture the essence of playing a thrilling role-playing game and transfer it into a rich and compelling narrative

Playing role-playing games is one of my fondest memories of childhood. Most of the details from those D&D campaigns have faded, but the feeling of anticipation, discovery, and camaraderie still lingers to this day. There was nothing better than getting together with a group of friends and adventuring into the unknown for countless hours each weekend, excited and nervous and awed by whatever threat was around the next bend. I had thought those affections a thing of the past, so I was admittedly surprised when I experienced a similar wave of emotions while reading Mike Shel’s debut novel, Aching God. Somehow Shel was able to capture the essence of playing a thrilling role-playing game and transfer it into a rich and compelling narrative filled with likable heroes, horrifying villains, and surprising mysteries. 

Shel has a substantial resume as a freelance writer and developer of adventure modules for the Pathfinder RPG, so it’s plain to see how his experience in the genre has led to such a polished and well-developed novel. Like many of the modules and adventures that Shel has developed in his career, the story takes place in a traditional fantasy setting, with priests, clerics, spell-swords, fighters, and mages that square off against undead evils and ancient gods from lost civilizations. The story follows Auric, a retired adventurer who is pulled back into the fray after learning that his old brotherhood has fallen victim to a terrible plague that has cursed their citadel of operation. This brotherhood of adventurers had been tasked with exploring centuries-old tombs of an ancient, long-dead civilization across the sea, and one unfortunate expedition brought back a treasure that led to the triggering of this deadly plague. After Auric finds out that he has a great personal stake in solving this crisis, he joins a band of tomb-raiding companions tasked with returning the cursed treasure back where it was found. Unfortunately, this tomb happens to be the home of a malicious and unspeakably evil god, and no one really knows if returning the treasure will have any positive effect. Throughout the journey, Auric is haunted by tragedies of his past while trying to protect those in the present, all the while knowing that not everyone is likely going to survive. 

There’s so much to enjoy in this book. Auric remains the primary point-of-view for the entire novel, yet it was easy to become attached to many of the supporting characters in his traveling party. The friendship and loyalty that develops between Auric and the mace-wielding fighter Belech is one of the highlights of the story, as is the journey of the earnest and endearing priestess Sira. It was also refreshing to have a singular purpose in the novel that never wavered: the goal of the quest was consistent from beginning to end. Shel did an admirable job raising the tension as the party neared their goal, and there were some genuinely frightening scenes of terror and discomfort as the nightmarish scenarios began to pile up. The plot moves along at a brisk pace, and there are plenty of twists and turns along the way that kept me on my toes. We also learn about the theological history of the realm, as well as some major events that are happening on the outskirts of our story. I have a feeling that these events will be further developed in the next book of the series, but I was happy to discover that this book can be easily treated as a standalone novel. That won’t be the case for me, as I plan to devour the next volume as soon as it’s released. Shel has created an intriguing world of high, epic fantasy that delivers on all fronts. If you’re a fan of classic RPG adventures or just an extremely well-written novel, then make sure to pick up a copy of Aching God. It’s rare to find a debut novel that reads as well as this, which has me excited about what Shel will be able to produce down the road.

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