Review | Aching God – Mike Shel

About the Book

“Closer, mortal. You are here, finally, to feed the Aching God…”

The days of adventure are passed for Auric Manteo. Retired to the countryside with his scars and riches, he no longer delves into forbidden ruins seeking dark wisdom and treasure. That is, until old nightmares begin plaguing his sleep, heralding an urgent summons back to that old life.

To save his only daughter, Auric must return to the place of his greatest trauma: the haunted Barrowlands. With only a few inexperienced companions and an old soldier, he must confront the dangers of the ancient and wicked Djao civilization. Auric has survived fell beasts, insidious traps, and deadly hazards before. But can he contend with the malice of a bloodthirsty living god?

602 pages (paperback)
Published on April 9, 2018
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Reader, I tend to shy away from books everyone raves about because I feel this weird pressure to rave about them too. What if I don’t want to rave about them? What if I pick up a book everyone seems to love and I -gasp- don’t love it? And also, with my focus on this website right now being toward indie/self-published SFF books with fewer than 100 ratings on Amazon, this particular book only fits half of that. It is indie. It does not have fewer than 100 ratings. 

That being said, I was in the mood for some epic fantasy recently. Something different. Something I thought I might be able to sink into and just forget the world. I wandered around Kindle Unlimited for a while and this book kept finding itself in my sights. Finally, the sixth time I randomly came across it on Amazon, I decided this was fate telling me I needed to read it already, and here we are.

This is a story told from the perspective of one Auric Manteo. Auric has retired from relic-hunting a while ago, but something is stirring. He’s plagued by nightmares, and seems a bit… uneasy… though he can’t put a finger on why. Then he gets a missive. He’s needed. So he rides away to go confront something terrible. Auric is basically given a suicide mission. A strange plague is sweeping the land, and his own daughter is one of the afflicted. With a ragtag team of people, he heads off to the Barrowlands, a place that triggers all sorts of trauma for Auric, to return a cursed item to a dungeon, which will, he is told, end this plague. 

If you want a story about one man out to save humanity from everlasting destruction, this is absolutely it. Auric’s race is one against time. If this plague continues on the path it is going, humanity itself will cease to exist. And while this might sound a bit campy, or maybe overdone, I really loved the way Shel breathed new life into this trope by taking it and making it extremely personal. This isn’t just humanity for humanity’s sake, this is Auric’s own daughter, and while they might be estranged, the emotional impact that particular plot thread gave the story was profound. It kept this from being about some vague save-the-world ideal, and about saving his daughter, and that mattered to me. 

There are a few things I want to mention about Auric. First, it’s really rare I read an epic fantasy book about a father. Even if he’s estranged from his children, it just doesn’t happen often. It seems they either aren’t usually old enough to have grown children, or they are too jaded/burnt out/restless to have them or some mix of the two. But Auric had kids. More, he was old enough to retire from his profession AND have grown children. I don’t get the sense the guy was terribly old, but he was obviously older and more rooted than most fantasy protagonists I read about, and I really liked that. It set him apart from others. Life does not stop at forty, and I loved how the author embraced that, not just giving Auric a whole backstory and a life already lived, but certain aspects of his current life that a lot of readers will be able to relate to (like having kids) and empathize with (like being retired from a profession). 

Secondly, Auric is a tortured man, which obviously means I loved him. This book is written mostly from Auric’s point of view, which isn’t terribly common with epic fantasy but I think it was the right move here. Most epic fantasy seems to have multiple perspectives and readers head hop a lot, but Shel lets you get real comfortable with Auric. This allows the reader to sink into the protagonist’s mind, and sort of get comfortable there. That’s what this book needed. The interesting thing, I found, was this is an epic fantasy book, and without some of the decisions Shel made about story execution (like POV) it would have just been another epic fantasy book, but Shel is pretty much a genius. He decided to take this story, which was already really good, and make it as personal as he could and that, dear reader, is why I loved Aching God. All these small details, from the age and background of Auric, to the perspective used to tell Auric’s story, to the world itself (I mean, seriously, his entire job description is like fantasy Indiana Jones and DO I REALLY NEED TO SELL THAT TO YOU?) just made Aching God sing.

That being said, Aching God isn’t all about Auric and his daughter and personal trauma. Again, Shel shows what a craftsman he is by deftly balancing these elements of personal and worldly. Sometimes we really steep ourselves in external conflict, and sometimes internal narrative, but Shel never really spends too much time in any one place. He’s also pretty subtle, weaving in just enough of each part of this story into every scene to make them feel perfectly balanced. By the time the book was over, I was honestly pretty amazed by how well I knew Auric, and how much I cared about the world he lives in. It’s not really something I expected.

The book itself is relentless and unforgiving. There is always something happening somewhere, and Auric, at times, seems impossibly behind the curve. It looks hopeless, it feels hopeless, and since it’s personal, that mattered to me. I genuinely wanted Auric to succeed and thrive. The book does sort of take time to warm up. Some readers might find the start a bit slow, but from the midpoint on, it’s like a boulder rolling down a mountain: unstoppable. 

I believe the entire series is out now, or at least, the third book in it was recently released, and this is good because once you read this book you won’t want to wait to read the second one. 

Aching God snuck up on me. I honestly went into this expecting to read another epic fantasy that was entertaining but nothing that really stuck to my ribs. I was pleasantly surprised. There were so many things here that I didn’t expect, from some unusual spins on typical tropes, to an obvious passion for the story being told, to Auric himself. Furthermore, the writer/editor side of my brain was obsessed with HOW Shel chose to tell his story, and how those decisions impacted the whole. 

In summary, reader, I should not have waited so long to read this book. 

5/5 stars