Aching God by Mike Shel is a slow burn, a novel that gathers its steam along the way in an adventure that is as old as fantasy itself. In the beginning we meet Auric Mentao, a retired member of the Syraeic League, a soldier and swordsman whose prowess and intelligence had carried him through many adventures in the service of his Queen. Living quietly on the edge of the seat of power where his farm lies under the protection of Lady Hannah in Daurhim we first meet Auric arising from a nightmare. A nightmare that will immerse us in a scene of his greatest disaster and the cause of his retirement these three years. A man who suffers from what we’d now term PTSD, or the trauma of an experience so dreadful and shocking to his system that even now he can barely cope with existence. And, yet, he must, for now he has been summoned by Queen Geneviva, Imperatrix and monarch, to the court to once again take up arms and perform the duty of a Knight and Soldier.
One could say this is a traditional tale, a fairly standard plot or quest, a military mission with an assorted crew of men and women gifted with various talents of arms and alchemy and sorcery and healing, etc., and one would be right; and, yet, it’s more than that, it’s a tale about regrets and honor, loyalty and friendship, too. Auric like many soldier’s is haunted by mistakes, bad decisions, and even sadder losses. A man who is reluctant to once again open old wounds and allow himself to face certain terrors that might lead him to once again fail bitterly. And, yet, he must. The Kingdom is under the desperate curse of a plague, a disease brought about by the Syraeic League’s ever insistent plundering of ancient foe’s temples and dungeons for artifacts of power. We discover that one such artifact has awakened presumably an ancient enemy, an Aching God whose hunger will not be quenched till it sees all humans brought to its dark and terrible temple where it will feed and feed till nothing is left. But that is to get ahead of ourselves…
Auric, summoned to the Capitol, has discovered in the offices and precincts of his own League that his daughter, his own blood is dying of this plague, and that the only cure entails that he once again take up arms. What he has been requested to do is to return an artifact of this Aching God to its temple where it was taken in hopes that the power it has released will return to the demon and leave the people of Halifax alone. This the high members of the League believe is the only cure for the plague, and Auric is the only one of strength, wisdom, and prowess the League hierarchy trusts to do the job.
Enough of the plot. I don’t want to spoil you further with the details of this long quest to return the artifact. Just to tell you the trip is worth it. Mike Shel is a wizened craftsman of tales. Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1964 and grew up in the suburb of Dearborn, the hometown of Henry Ford, genius industrialist and virulent anti-Semite nutjob. Mike has also lived in southern Illinois, Louisville, Kentucky, Atlanta, Georgia, and now Indianapolis, Indiana. After writing two adventures for Dungeon Magazine in the early 90s, he crawled down a deep, dark hole. He emerged 15 years later, Rip Van Winkle-like, looked around for a moment, then crawled back down again. Re-emerging after another 3 years, he rubbed the sleep from his eyes and began freelancing for Paizo Publishing and third-party publishers like Kobold Press and Legendary Games. Mike has an advanced degree in clinical psychology and has practiced as a psychotherapist for over twenty years, specializing in cognitive therapy for panic and anxiety disorders. He has also worked with clients suffering from addiction, mood disorders, psychosis, and survivors of trauma.
It’s this background in clinical psychology and trauma that is reflected in the character of Auric Manteo. If anything it’s this study of a broken man who somehow faces down his old demons and if not triumphs, at least finds a balance and reprieve from their dark and terrible hold on his life. I enjoyed the novel because it crafts characters that one can get to know and enjoy travelling with for a time as if one were part of this expedition into an ancient civilization whose bloody gods and demons once ruled the world, but whose collapsed and dangerous ruins still harbor hellish secrets best left hidden in their bile infested tombs.
I’ve always seen fantasy as a complex of history, philosophy, religion, with a deep and incessant underpinning of our need to understand who and what we are as humans. And, even when we are facing the unknown and unseen, it is as humans. The secret of fantasy for me is that it doesn’t reduce this need to know what it is to be a human in a non-human universe so much as it expands it, puts it at the forefront of a heightened set of realistic and psychological narratives that push humanity into those liminal zones of magick and danger that we usually try to explain away rather than confront. It helps us see what most of us are afraid to face in our real lives, but it does it realistically, shaping its stories around characters that are more real that we are and thereby makes us even more involved in our own lives and stories. It’s this quality that Mike Shel’s story does best, makes each of us more human.