SPFBO4 Finalist: Aching God

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Esme’s Thoughts

Auric’s  wife also committed suicide four years ago after the death of their son, and he’s also plagued by nightmares of his fallen comrades who died horrible deaths – this guy has not had it easy life. He went into retirement to try and escape the turmoil and live his last years in peace, but he was summoned to the Citadel on an urgent matter. When he arrives, he finds out that there’s a plague going through the city, it’s incredibly deadly and only two people have survived. To make shit worse, his daughter is one of the afflicted. He and his daughter have a strained relationship and don’t speak with each other too often, but he cares deeply for her and is willing to do whatever it takes to help. Auric is told that the officials have good reason to believe an ancient relic brought up from a dungeon was responsible for the outbreak.

His mission is to return it to the temple to stop the ongoing plague that’s killing people in the tens of thousands. The syndicate has lost so many members that they have to ask for help from a retiree who is a self-confessed broken person. Auric blacks out at the sight of blood, he has tremors in his hands and has to be pulled out from under his bed while having night terrors. I really love the fact that he didn’t come busting out of retirement with guns blazing, this is a guy suffering from severe PTSD and is willingly throwing himself right back into the fire.

Before they can set off for their adventure, however, they have to get permission from the Queen.

I found the main character to be very engrossing, we spend a lot of time in his head and he’s such a different sort of character I liked him immediately. I enjoy seeing people who are truly struggling with inner demons and the challenges they’re presented with rather than just smashing their way through every problem with ease. This guy knows what he’s about, but he is so broken that he’s barely functioning. He also can be full of some pretty sage advice being of more advanced years and having seen a lot of shit go down.

The magic in this was creepy and had a really dark overtone – necromancy and the undead play a pretty big part in this story. I’ve been alternating my reads between darker and lighter books and it’s really upping my enjoyment of darker stories. I liked basically everything about the world building, the gods and priests devoted to them were varied and intriguing. The priests devoted to healing magic were the most interesting to me (but I always play Healer Class), they refuse to heal themselves even though they could, to the point where they’d let a leg be amputated over committing the sin of self-healing. The healers are also powerful, able to knit the flesh back together from even the most life-threatening wounds – super useful to take on an expedition into a dungeon.

The tone of this was pretty dark, there was a lot of violence, a good amount of necromantic magic, illness, death, undead etc. However, the main character is a good person and it’s very easy to root for him. It helps balance out the world around him, keeping it from getting overly dark.

The writing was very solid, it felt professionally edited and revised. Debut novels often suffer from telling instead of showing or having long info dumps in the narrative to ‘bring the reader up to speed’. Instead, in this one there were bits of world-building dropped in slowly in the dialogue with very little info dumping. There were just a few times where I was told about events or something else in summary to tell me things I already knew either in dialogue or narrative, which was repetitive, but they were brief and didn’t happen that often.

If I were going to have a complaint about the book it would be the pacing, but it may just be a personal thing. I kept waiting to get to this dungeon but that didn’t come around until about 75% through the book. I think if I had known that it wasn’t going to happen until later I would have been less antsy reading it. The story was just as focused on his journey to get to this dungeon as it was about what he was going to do when he got there.


Coffee’s Thoughts

This was a well-written Dungeons & Dragons-esque adventure story. The choice to have the protagonist be a lawful good mercenary with PTSD in a grimdark world was a breath of fresh air, as well.

Shel writes creepily unhinged side characters disturbingly well. Whenever one of them appeared in a scene, they stole the show completely. That said, the core group of characters ran together for me. Over halfway through the book, I could still only tell you one or two of their names, and their personalities felt very similar.

While I greatly enjoyed seeing the main character work to overcome his near-crippling PTSD from past dungeon crawls, it felt a little tacked on since it didn’t impact the plot. If he’d gotten the whole crew into a tight spot or even managed to overcome it without magical aide, it would’ve held more impact for me.

Overall, I still enjoyed The Aching God. It’s well written, fun, and offers some clever twists on classic fantasy tropes.


Superstardrifter’s Thoughts

Auric was a really interesting character, being flawed but still a good leader for this company of relic hunters. The supporting cast were unique but the group of them with their specific talents and jobs made this read like a dungeon crawler.

The book was very well written, and had plenty of twists and turns in the plot to keep it engaging enough, but I found that I had a very hard time getting engaged with it in the first place. There was nothing that was outright repellent about the book at all, but I just couldn’t stay interested in it, and found my attention wandering away from the book a lot. This required a lot of rewinding in order for me to keep up with what was going on. By about halfway into the book, I was finally hooked into it though. I listened to the last quarter or so of it in one sitting, so once I got there, I got there.

Despite getting the audiobook version entirely because it is narrated by Simon Vance, I didn’t love his narration of it, with the exception of his portrayal of Auric, which… since he’s the main character, really carried the whole audiobook for me. C’est la vie! Some people have loved this narration but sadly it seemed just alright to me.

All told, it was a very good book, but I wasn’t in love with it. I certainly enjoyed my time with it enough that I finished it, and I have to say that the last half or so of it was a lot more engaging than the first half for me.

Wol’s Thoughts

I had a fantastic time with this one. Shel instills a sense of creeping dread from the very beginning and it increases with every chapter. Auric was a refreshing main character – older, battle worn, plagued by his memories and PTSD from the life he has led. He’s a good hearted but flawed man who’s doing his best in a difficult situation, and given that the genre is host to a sea of misanthropic badasses, that’s something I truly appreciate. For me, Auric was reminiscent of Caz from Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion, which immediately made me root for him.

The story is dark and bloody and violent, but the goodness of the characters kept it safely out of grimdark’s more cynical territory. The worldbuilding is paced nicely with minimal infodumping and, as Coffee mentioned, it has a strong Dungeons and Dragons vibe. It reads like a well plotted campaign, one that I’d be delighted to play in. The characters are vibrant and at times grotesque, and the moral path isn’t always black and white. The prose is strong and it all feels quite polished – one thing I appreciated very much was the sense that words weren’t being wasted on irrelevant waffling. The details all either drove the story forward or told us something interesting about the nature of the characters, right down to someone cheekily pilfering a slice of bacon intended for the master.

The story’s progression is pretty linear, but builds up to a creepy, high-stakes bloodbath of a dungeon crawl for the last 25% of the book. If that sounds like your jam, I’d highly recommend it.


Judges Final Ratings:

  • Esme: 8.6/10
  • Wol: 8.5/10
  • Kristen: 7/10
  • Coffee: 6.5/10

Final Score: 7.65/10 or 7.5/10 for SPFBO

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