REVIEW- Aching God by Mike Shel
By: Preston Simmons | Written: 21 May 2021
Aching God by Mike Shel is an incredible novel that sets a new bar for the dungeon crawling book genre and is a great addition to fantasy as a whole. The book follows Auric Manteo, a retired adventurer who must travel back to the pits of hell to save the kingdom from a mysterious plague that threatens the lives of all citizens, including his only daughter. He will face challenges of all sorts on his journey, from lesser beasts to higher gods, all while fighting what might be the greatest foe of all; himself.
As of now, Aching God is my favorite book of the year.
As a kid, being an adventurer was something I always wanted to be. Going on dungeon crawls, fighting monsters, being a part of a guild, and joining a party, were all things that used to make me think my life, in reality, sucked. Books helped me escape reality and experience secondhand what being an adventurer might be like. Role-playing games helped me actually experience what dungeon crawling might be like. Games like Oblivion and Skyrim, Dungeons and Dragons, and World of Warcraft were what I filled my life with. They catered to my wish-fulfillment fantasies and made me want to be those characters and live in those worlds.
Aching God is not one of those stories. This book takes that childish fantasy of wanting to be an adventurer and flips it on its head. Mike Shel shows what it would really be like to live in a fantasy world as an adventurer, and the truth is, it’s not something you should ever wish for.
The Troubles of Auric Manteo
A book lives or dies by the characters written within. The main cast of this novel is one of the biggest highlights to be found in Aching God. Each character had their own moments to shine, never being overshadowed by one or the other. Luckily, every character in this book is well written, compelling, and unique, never feeling like throw-away characters just created to move the plot forward. Even the minor characters only introduced for one chapter at a time felt like they each had their own stories to be told. But in a book filled with such memorable characters, Auric Manteo, our main protagonist, is perhaps the most interesting of them all.
Auric Manteo struggles with PTSD, his faith in the gods, and even with himself. It’s unsurprising, considering the horrific events he survived in his past. Auric is not your typical fantasy protagonist. He’s old, he’s tired, and he has constant nightmares. He’s also the perfect character to experience the story through. The world Shel has crafted is dark and unforgiving, and Auric is a victim of it.
Shel wanted to show just how brutal the life of an adventurer could be, through the eyes of someone who survived it, if barely. As a veteran, Auric acts as a mentor to his younger companions, and by extension, the reader. He knows the world and the dangers that come with it. All that is revealed is done so only when it serves a purpose in the story. There are no infodumps that feel out of place and unnecessary. Instead, Shel chooses to employ show-don’t-tell to give the reader more insight into the world. Because of this, I never felt bored while reading.
Not A Simple World
At first glance, the world of Aching God may seem familiar to average fantasy readers. There are guilds, adventurers, a plethora of gods, monsters, ghosts, dukes, queens, and many other typical things seen in other fantasy books. However, there is a layer of grime on everything that always managed to keep me on edge while reading.
For example, instead of a typical queen, she’s been alive for over 120 years. Why? It’s not explained because Auric himself doesn’t know. It just is what it is. Could it be due to some form of magic? More than likely. Another example is that instead of a typical priest used for confessing your sins, you instead meet a sin eater, someone who has not bathed or seen the sun in over 30 years. Why? Because it is part of their beliefs. Weird? Totally. But that’s the world that Shel has created. Nothing is simple, and I love the book for that.
However, sometimes I would have liked things to be explained more. For example, don’t expect to finish this book and understand how the magic system works. In fact, the “how” of the magic system is never explained at all. Characters do things because they can. If there’s no reason to explain it in the moment, then don’t expect it to be explained at all.
How does Sira, our main priest in the story, heal wounds through prayer? I can’t tell you. Why does every magic user have a gem on their forehead, other than as a way to identify them? Not sure. How could Gnaeus, the swordmaster, enchant his swords with magic yet not be a magic-user? Gnaeus doesn’t explain it.
It’s not that it’s bad that Shel didn’t have all aspects of why things happened or how they happened explained to Auric. If he did explain everything at all times, the book would have felt unnatural. Instead, Shel opted just to let things flow naturally, which overall was the right choice. This book does not hold the reader’s hand, and for that, I am thankful.
Not All Perfect
If I had one complaint, it would be the slight Deus Ex Machina climax in the story. I won’t explain what exactly happened, but it’s pretty obvious when it does. Amusingly, Shel does go on later to address the issue later on in the novel. Still, like many other things, the why of it happening remains a mystery in this book and is left for what appears to be a reveal later on in the series, or at least in the next book.
Aching God is my favorite book of 2021 so far for its well-written characters, dark and grimy world, edge-of-the-seat suspense, and Shel’s masterful use of show don’t tell for world-building. For a debut novel, this is one of the best I have come across in the dungeon crawling sub-genre and fantasy as a whole. Without question, I will read the next book in the series, Sin Eater, and, more than likely, the third one, Idols Fall.
ACHING GOD by Mike Shel