The tendency to pigeonhole Aching God as a simple Dungeons and Dragons adventure is tempting (not that such efforts should be cast aside because many a good story has come from the table-top). Shel’s debut has all the trappings of a role-playing game: there is a band of adventurers, each with a different skill set; there are monsters to slay and dungeons to explore; there are strange religions of differing morality; and it takes its characters from one side of a map to another. This formula screams D&D. I would not be at all surprised to hear that Shel took his story from a well-run campaign – a very likely possibility given his Pathfinder work.
However, Aching God, by virtue of Shel’s ability with the written word and his talent for diving deep into a character’s psyche, is so much more than a game set to the page. This is a horror novel, a story about post-traumatic stress, a character study, and a world-building opener that screams at more secrets and things to come. Aching Goddoes what some of the best fantasy in the history of the genre does in its ability to flesh out a map and trickle in enough information to keep a reader wondering with every flip of the page. Aching God is really, really good.
The story finds an aging Auric Manteo, retired from the Syraeic League where he drew his fame and fortune, once more thrust into the life of an adventurer when his daughter and her fellow compatriots in the League, are stricken with a mysterious plague. The source of this plague is an idol taken from an ancient tomb, the kind of thing Auric himself might have plundered in his younger days, and the scholars within the League (those yet alive) predict that the only thing to stop this plague is to restore the idol to its place of origin. Auric must, with a cadre of capable companions, journey to the Barrowlands, spelunk back into the horrifying crypt, and place the idol back into the statue from whence it was wrested.
Sound familiar? The concept here is nothing new, but we don’t always need something new in our fantasy – Nicholas Eames proved that with his genre-shaking debut Kings Of The Wyld. Sometimes the oldest stories, if told with a twist and told well, can be fantastic.
>What is Shel’s twist? He has a few. First, and most memorable, is the way in which he narrates Auric’s adventurous past. Auric did not retire because he had a nice long life and wanted to reap the rewards. Auric retired because his last foray into one of the Barrowlands’ dungeons saw his entire party slain and devoured before his very eyes. Shel does a masterful job of relaying Auric’s last journey, mostly through flashbacks or dreams, and the more we learn about that last fated adventure, the more we understand Auric’s motivations and his fears. Shel borrows notes from Lovecraft in his depictions of the Djao gods, deities once worshipped by an ancient race but that were cast down by the realm’s current pantheon. These are grotesque beings of indeterminable size or form. They toy with their victims in an eldritch manner, worming into the mind in order to use madness as a weapon. Shel shrouds all of this in that signature mystery often reserved for ruined ancient races.
Shel also does a lovely job in his characterizations of the party. Of particular note is Auric’s companion Belech, an ex-soldier who accompanies the retired adventurer at the behest of the noble lady in whose realm Auric has retired. Belech is a complex mixture of simple man and unassuming scholar. He has faith, but is not preachy about it and seems to truly believe in the benevolence of his god. He’s also handy with a mace. Auric’s other companions are ones furnished him by the League, but they leave nearly as much of an impact. Sira is a priest whom Auric and Belech meet even before coming to the Syraeic League’s headquarters, and she becomes one of the most sympathetic and authentic characters in the novel. It is a testament to Shel’s character work that he is able to write characters with a spectrum of cynicism and optimism. Gnaeus, a young swordsman, is the consummate cynic and polar opposite of Sira, in much the same way that Auric and Belech lean towards opposite ends. Del Ogara, a happy sorceress, and Lumari, a cold alchemist, round out the balanced pairs in a way that is only noticeable upon later scrutiny. There are times when the characterization does not completely hold up, and a scene near the end in particular that tries to impart an emotional bombshell that is unearned, but for the most part I cared about these characters and wanted to see them succeed.
The only part where Aching God falters is in its ending. Shel spends so much time working towards this confrontation with the unknown Aching God, and then when things finally reach that head, it turns out to be a disappointment. I both understand and lament this. This is the first novel in a series. Robert Jordan couldn’t end The Eye of the World with Rand confronting and defeating Shai’tan. Neither can Shel simply have his characters meet the world’s biggest bad and stick a sword in him. But where Jordan succeeds and Shel fails, to use the prior analogy, is that Jordan casts a wider net with his villains. Shel makes mention of something more out there, but not until the very end, and the entire novel is spent working solely towards this one unfathomable creature. The way in which this is told, it feels like Rand is making his way to the Dark One, to further push that comparison, and when he gets there he finds that the Dark One isn’t very dark at all. I feel that this will be fleshed out in the sequel, certainly, but it makes for a mostly unsatisfying conclusion to what is an incredible journey.
I don’t know if Mike Shel will win the SPFBO. This is my favorite book so far in the competition, but I suspect others might find less depth than I have and see it as more of a simple role-playing game-style adventure. I hope people take the time to read more into the story than what’s on the surface because I do think this is an excellent book, and I expect to stay with Mike Shel for a long while.