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.
8.7 / 10
-- Adam Weller
The first time I met Mike Shel’s work was in the Lost Lore anthology, where he published a short story titled Barrowland and introduced the main character of his debut novel, Auric. Obviously, I was intrigued to know what happens next so when the opportunity arose, I dived in. Apart from the short story, I didn’t really know what should I expect, so couldn’t be disappointed in the end. Although, considering the offer came through a person whose taste I find similar to mine, that wasn’t really a possibility. All in all, I wasn’t disappointed with this one. Despite that I find it hard to review it, but can’t put my finger on the why. Probably I’ll figure it out by the end I finish writing this up. And since I couldn’t decide between 3.5 and 4 stars I settled on 3.75. Who said I’m not a problem solver?
Let’s start with the story. Auric, retired from the Syraeic League lives a comfortable life far from the city, trying to come to terms with his past failures and regrets. Until, that is, when he is summoned and is being forced to face all of his weaknesses – or what he thinks are weaknesses anyway. With a new group of companions and the blessing of the Queen he is set to save not only the plague burdened Boudun but his daughter’s life as well. Along their journey they face several dangers, reveal secrets and face some unexpected turn of events. This book is well written, it has the right pace and it managed to surprise me a few times. It’s obvious how much time the author spent polishing it. I also liked the world building, that we’ve got to see many parts of this vast world – I have to mention here, that you can find a nice, colored map on the author’s website. I would’ve left out a scene or two because they didn’t seem to have much significance to the story, but I won’t complain, it was still enjoyable. I also would have liked to read more about the religious system – we only get a glimpse at some gods and their follower’s life. They all seem pretty interesting, and I hope we’ll get to know more about them. They seem to be that kind of entities who like to meddle in human’s business. There is no fun like messing with peope, is there? The pantheon bores resemblance to the roman-greek pantheon and since I’m pretty much into that kind of stuff – anything regarding religions, really – I longed to read more. The same goes for the Djao culture. I’m craving to know more about them! On a side note, Aching God didn’t seem to have first book problems, we don’t get many info dumpings, or if we do, it’s smartly written into the dialogues and descriptions. My only problem was the vocabulary. Now, I’m not a native english reader, so it might be my lack of knowledge (I don’t have this problem most of the time though), but I kept checking out words to understand what is going on. It pretty much ruined the reading experience for me at times. On the other hand, most of them were archaic versions of words used in modern english, and if their use were intended, then they fitted well into the narrative and the atmosphere of the story.
I think the weak point of Aching God for me were the characters. I liked Auric, and I understood his struggle, his motivation, his fears, I could root for him and I liked how he grew throughout the book and that despite everything he could keep his sense of humor. The same goes for Belech, he might have been my favorite character overall. With Gnaeus I had a love-hate relationship and by the end he grew on me, mostly because of his sense of humor and his undeniable self-confidence. Del and Lumari remained a mystery to me and I couldn’t connect to them at all. Maybe it would have helped if we could learn more about how the Syraeic League works and how exactly are trained the different parties like the sorcerers, the swordsmen, etc. Some of the side characters were more interesting than these two ladies, I felt like they weren’t fleshed out completely for some reasons. And last but not least, Sira. She was a bright light in all the darkness lurking around the corner. She is kind, brave, intelligent and a bit of a rebel. I like that combination. I also has to mention Queen Geneviv, because she reminded me so much of Queen Elizabeth I. She might have been my favorite side character. I also pictured her as Judi Dench in one of her films where she portrayed the Queen.
Overall, I immensely enjoyed this book, especially the last 20% or so. It is a thrilling, dark, cleverly written debut novel which deserves all the attention it can get. Read it people, because it’s good! And I will keep an eye on Mike Shel in the future. I have a feeling the second book, Sin Eater will be even better.
7.5 / 10
-- Timy Takacs
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