SPFBO Review: Aching God by Mike Shel

Aching God

This is a continuation of a series of reviews for the top 10 finalists for the 2018 Self Published Fantasy Blog Off. Usual reminder that I am not associated with the contest and my review has no bearing in the contest’s final score.

This book tells the story of Auric Manteo, a retired member of the Syraeic League, a guild of Indiana Jones-style adventure archaeologists in a medieval fantasy setting. Auric struggles with PTSD after his last dungeon crawl went terribly wrong, and only seeks to enjoy a quiet life in the countryside. Unfortunately, he is called back into his old life when he learns that his daughter is in terrible danger.

On the surface this premise sounds a lot like Kings of the Wyld — aging adventurer is pulled out of retirement in order to rescue his daughter, who is also an adventurer. But the similarities end there. The danger that threatens his daughter doesn’t come from monsters or ancient temples. At least, not directly. Instead, it is a plague, caused by cursed artifact that was removed from an ancient temple decades ago. Manteo and his party of adventurers now must voyage to that far-off temple to return the artifact, and hopefully break the curse.

This was a difficult review for me to write because, while the writing style was top notch and I could see why it got such acclaimed reviews, ultimately I failed to connect to this story in any meaningful way. That’s really nothing personal against it — as I’m fond of saying, not every book is for everyone, and that’s okay. I think it’s important to write honest reviews even if they aren’t my favorite books, because what didn’t work for me, might be something that makes it a beloved book for someone else. If what’s described in this review sounds like something you might enjoy, I highly encourage you to check it out!

There were a number of things I did enjoy about it. The prose was atmospheric and engaging, and I felt the sense of creeping dread as they prepare to visit the ancient temple, where things are clearly very, very wrong. The thing I liked most about it was the fact that it had an older protagonist. I immediately compared it to Kings of the Wyld earlier despite few other similarities because older protagonists are just so rare that when they come up it’s natural to compare them. We need more older protagonists, I think. I also really liked the fact that the hero explicitly doesn’t drink alcohol. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sober protagonist in a non-contemporary setting before. It was, therefore, very refreshing to see a fantasy protagonist who wasn’t the typical 15-20 year old who spends half his time guzzling mead in taverns.

This story also had active gods, which I tend to enjoy. Gods, and the ways their morality differs from both each other and from humans, always intrigues me in stories, and I was really fascinated with the take Shel had on the various religions, old and new, in the story. I would have loved to read more about the trickster god who is wreaking havoc on the modern-day kingdom.

While Auric is a compelling character, however, the others fall a bit flat, and feel more like archetypes than actual people. There’s an untrustworthy bard, a pedantic alchemist, a mysterious sorceress, a cocky swordsman, and, of course, a healer/cleric who is too pure for this cruel world. I was half expecting some kind of subversion of these character tropes, but alas, they were played completely straight.

What ultimately failed for me in this story, however, was the pacing. The ostensible premise is that the characters are going to go on a dungeon crawl to this horrible ancient temple full of unspeakable evil. However, the dungeon crawl itself takes up only a small portion of the story itself. The vast majority of the story outlines their journey to the temple. This might have been done for a point, perhaps to demonstrate that the journey is more important than the destination, I never really got this impression, and instead the plot just sort of meandered, and seemed to be a series of one thing after the other happening to the characters without any cohesion. Every time something happened and I would think, “A ha, surely, this is the main point of the story,” the narrative would simply move on to the next thing and may or may not ever mention it again. I had a hard time figuring out what was important or what was worthy of my attention. When the characters finally did reach their destination, I’m afraid I was left feeling like it was rather anticlimactic.

Expand to read extensive spoilers

Near the beginning, our intrepid heroes visit the queen in order to obtain permission for their quest. Immediately upon arrival, it is clear that something is terribly wrong in the royal court. The queen, apparently, almost died long ago. A trickster god saved her life, but at a horrible price: now she is still alive long past the ordinary human lifespan, and her body and mental stability have deteriorated all the while.

I have to say, this is some compelling stuff. I would love to read an entire book about this. So here I’m thinking, they really shouldn’t be wasting their time mucking about in ancient temples. They really need to do something about their immortal deranged zombie queen who’s steadily leading their country into ruin.

But what do I know?

Deranged or not, the queen gives them permission for their quests, and off they go. Along the way, they endure a lengthy sea voyage, a pirate attack, and a meeting with a duke who makes the queen look positively stable. The duke gives the main characters a collection of priceless artifacts on a whim.

While all this is happening, the tension builds about the temple at the end of the road. The characters dread it. It is meant to be a scary, bad place full of evil.

At last, the characters reach their destination! Now for the true point of the story, the scary temple we’ve been hearing about all this time!

Just kidding. Now, apparently, they need to get more permission, this time from the people who run the modern church on top of the ancient temple. The leader of the church has recently passed away, so now the reader was treated to a long meeting where a bunch of new characters we have never met before and have no reason to care about argue over who should be the next church leader. Friends, at this point, I almost DNFd the book, but I promised I would read all the SPFBO finalists, so I powered through.

Finally, finally, they get to the dungeon crawl. This part was excellently written and I enjoyed the action in this section. But I’m afraid it, too, turned out to be something of a let down. On one hand, there are character deaths in the dungeon, and those deaths were very sad to read about. Yet for all that the horrors and evils of this temple were hyped up coming into it, I couldn’t help but feeling they were highly exaggerated. In fact, the titular aching god, the dungeon’s “final boss” as it were, was defeated almost easily, only because the main character happened to receive a magic weapon earlier in his quest. It felt like a complete deus ex machina — or maybe anti-deus ex machina, as the case may be.

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Overall I think this book had a lot of compelling ideas, but suffers from poor pacing and I felt like there was disconnect between what I wanted to focus on as a reader and what the author maybe wanted me to focus on.

People who might like this book

  • Fans of dungeon crawlers
  • People who like active gods as characters, and gods who are distinctly non-human
  • Anyone who enjoys atmospheric prose that captures a feeling of looming dread

People who might not enjoy this book as much

  • Me? I don’t know. Honestly for all my complaints I can’t even decide why I bounced off this. People who want their dungeon crawls to take up a higher percentage of the dungeon crawling book, I guess.

r/fantasy Bingo 2019 Squares

  • Self-Published
  • Local author if you live in Detroit (his hometown) or Indianapolis (his current town)

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