If I had been the sole judge in 2018’s recently wrapped up SPFBO, I would have chosen Mike Shel’s Aching God to win it all. His elegant prose and measured pacing won me over from the start, enough that I had to order a print copy of the book halfway through because I didn’t feel that reading it on a computer screen was doing it justice (I have a bias). Aching God has an old-school table-top RPG feel to it, but with eldritch-driven horror and a dive into psychology and post-traumatic stress themes that set it apart from almost any other fantasy. This combination lent it both an adventurous, exciting feel but also one with deep tension. Having finished up the recently released follow-up to Aching God, Sin Eater, I can say that Shel is more than a one-hit wonder, and has managed to build upon his world without straying too far from what made Aching God so successful.
The story picks up not long after Aching God. Auric Manteo has attempted to return to his retirement home in Daurhim, bringing with him his godslaying blade Szaa’da’shaela (there is no pronunciation guide, so good luck). It isn’t long before events conspire to drag him, once more, out of this serene life and into high adventure. This happens when his daughter, a character hinted at but never truly explored in Aching God, comes to fetch him back to the Syraeic League headquarters. Agnes Manteo can not tell Auric why he is needed, only that some real bad stuff is happening again, and he’s the only one who can help. The first thing I thought, as I watched these two characters draw closer together, was how much I wanted to see a father-daughter team-up, and Shel did not disappoint. However, as much as I wanted this to be a buddy-cop style relationship, Shel makes it clear from the start that there are unresolved issues between Agnes and her father, and where Aching God took place entirely from Auric’s point of view, Sin Eater dives into Agnes’ head as well.
Mike Shel’s storytelling style is an obvious product of his time spent building and playing role-playing adventures. Aching God had a very measured journey from one place to another and back again, and Sin Eater follows much the same route. Auric is summoned, he receives his mission, he gathers a crew, and they set out to fight an evil overlord. One could find fault in Shel’s use of the same narrative structure, but many series do this and do it well. Sin Eater feels slightly derivative because so many of the same points hit in nearly the same pattern. Auric and company travel to a different land, but the journey is filled with many of the same stopping points. Thankfully, Shel’s world-building is engaging enough that this never becomes a problem. I like meeting the new characters, and re-visiting a few of the old ones, and I enjoy seeing what new vistas Shel has to offer. Where Aching God took place in a desolate land full of the ruins of ancient civilization, Sin Eater journeys into a Heart of Darkness-like land of unknown motivation with heavy inspiration from Greek mythology. Their goal is fairly straight-forward – they must kill a god.
Auric’s crew, like those that made up Aching God, are a mixed bunch. Chalca is an androgynous thief, with the characteristic wit of a roguish type and an actor’s background. Kennah is the group’s gruff, thick-skinned warrior, a fellow Syraeic brother and Shel’s channel for exposing the nastier side of do-gooders. A wild sorcerer named Queelb, a mage untethered by the characteristic binding jewel that marks magicians of the Hanifax Empire, provides power to the group, and Sira Edjani makes a return as the compassionate priestess who binds wounds along the way. Replace Auric or Agnes with an archer of some type, and you have yourself a pretty typical D&D party. I like the characters in Sin Eater. They are all unique, with distinct personalities, but aside from Auric and Agnes, and possibly Kenneh due to the amount of time we spend with him as Agnes’ companion, we do not get much in the way of characterization. Aching God had some of this as well, but the characters felt a little more realized because there was more of that novel. Chalca and Queelb almost feel irrelevant to this one, and each only have one major part to play before we can safely forget about them. I wish this weren’t the case because I feel as though they were well-built characters who simply weren’t utilized. I think Shel could possibly remedy this characterization problem in future books by diving into more points of view. If we had whole chapters seen through Chalca’s eyes, his journey might have felt more relevant. Queelb almost feels even more tragic given his complicated history, and I could read an entire book about what he’s gone through.
It is impossible for me not to draw similarities between Aching God and Sin Eater, both because they are part of a continuing series with the same characters, and because they are so similar. The ending to Sin Eater has many of the same problems as I had with the ending to Aching God. It feels like a let down, given all that is building in the novel chapter after chapter, league after league. I appreciate that Shel is working towards something monumental in the third novel of the Iconoclasts series, but I think he could get there in a more satisfying way for his readers. There is a web of events and characters that is all very tightly woven, but which, by the end, feels completely impossible and contrived, and it’s hard to say much more than that without giving the ending away. Suffice to say that it left me feeling hungry for a bigger meal.
But really, Mike Shel is such a great writer, so accomplished with nearly every word he writes, that I don’t even necessarily need a great ending or more robust characters. It’s incredibly refreshing, especially with a self-published book, to read from page one to the end without stumbling over awkward sentences or misspelled/misused words. Shel’s writing feels like poetry, or an Italian libretto that doesn’t even need its music to succeed. There is no doubt that I am sticking with Shel through this series and beyond, and I can’t wait to see what bombs he drops in the next book of the Iconoclasts.