I have had the privilege of spending time in Mike Shel’s company. We spent a couple of days gaming, dining, and talking shop with a group of authors in Detroit at ConFusion a couple of years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Mike; he is a writer of classic D&D modules, a font of nerdy knowledge, and a genuinely pleasant person. If there is anything that I would say against him, it’s that he’s not very good at pitching books.
If that last remark sounds unkind, consider the story of how he tried to get me to read his SPFBO-finalist and critically hailed novel Aching God. While at ConFusion, we spent a while discussing my distaste for the excessive violence and melodramatic pathos that I’ve come to associate with “grimdark” fantasy. I shared that while I often enjoy dark atmosphere or early 20th century horror, the few times I’ve tried to read dark fantasy books they’ve left me with the impression that I was reading the printed equivalent of a snuff film, less a story than a device for reveling in misery and death.
In response, Mike gave me an impish grin and told me that Aching God was about a grief-stricken adventurer who wanders the wastelands carrying the severed head of a former companion. Then he handed me a signed copy and said he’d like to hear my thoughts on it.
Michael, know thy audience.
It was a poor pitch, if for no other reason than the timing. I remember it as all the worse for how it kept me from reading an amazing book. I wish I had cracked Aching God open then and there and devoured the entire tome on the spot.
I didn’t. I thanked him politely even as I mentally banished the book to the bowels of Mount To-Be-Read. It languished there for over two years, until an Internet search piqued my interest in Shel’s series anew. I wanted to read something like the game Darkest Dungeon in book form, something that evoked Lovecraftian horror and fantasy adventure and grim determination against impossible odds. The only recommendation I found that fit the bill was Aching God. I decided to set aside my misgivings about its cranium-carrying protagonist and downloaded a copy of the audiobook. I reasoned that I could listen while I walked the dog.
Soon thereafter, I found myself making a lot of excuses to take my dog on long excursions. Of course, I also found time to listen in the car, or instead of watching television, or late at night. Soon enough I was downloading book 2, Sin Eater and dragging the mutt out the door. I was forced to endure a two week wait between finishing it and the audio release of book 3, Idols Fall. That was really the only delay I suffered as I burned through the almost 50 combined hours of gothic adventure in the Iconoclasts Trilogy audiobooks. By the time I reached the thrilling conclusion, my dog had developed calloused feet and a Pavlovian response to seeing my earbuds.
Technically, the first book is about an ex-adventurer who goes mad with grief and wanders the wastelands carrying his companion’s head, in the same way that Ghostbusters is about some college professors who lose their jobs or The Little Mermaid is about a girl who collects forks. This grisly scene is really a vignette that sets the stage for an adventure that’s atmospheric and action packed, grim and yet heartfelt, brimming with otherworldly horrors and all-too-human characters.
Aching God and its sequels take place in the empire of Hanifax, an Elizabethan(ish) nation that lies between a cold sea and a bleak wasteland filled with the ruins of fallen civilizations. These ancient societies are dead but not gone, as at least some of their citizens haunt their former temples as hungry ghouls. Standing against their evil and investigating their secrets falls to the Syraeic League, a guild of adventurers and scholars dedicated to exploring the Barrowlands. In order to undertake excursions into those cursed regions, Syraeics must navigate court intrigue, the whims of a mad monarch, and the politics of various religious cults who—in case the “Iconoclasts” in the title did not tip you off—are not always on the up and up. Of course, once the adventurers actually make it abroad they need to brave the wilderness and ancient dungeons where devious traps, the aforementioned undead, foul monsters, and demonic entities all lay in wait.
Shel deftly weaves the subtle dangers of court life and brutal violence of dungeon delving into an epic adventure that never fails to impress. But what makes Iconoclasts stand apart is the very real effects of trauma that Auric Manteo and his Syraeic companions endure—characters suffer from grief, guilt, despair, and many symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Their pain gives them depth, and the way they help each other heal and rise above their circumstances brings the books to glorious heights.
I should say the way some of the characters heal. Some don’t get the chance. The books are brutally honest about the slim odds of surviving adventures into the Barrowlands, and the math plays out with morbid certainty across the chapters. Characters die. Main characters die. Characters that you want to win—characters that you hold dear— die. Horribly. I still have yet to forgive Mike for that one. He knows which one. Oh, he knows.
The books are grim. They are dark. They’re full of the worst of human behavior. Apply the content warnings—all of them. But the point of the story isn’t to revel in how bad people can be or wallow in their suffering. Instead, the books showcase how humanity can transcend its shortcomings, and the trilogy ultimately celebrates those who fight on despite facing impossible odds or wrestling with inner demons (both literal and figurative.)
And now I know why Mike grinned at me when I told him about my misgivings with dark fantasy. His was the happy smile of bibliophile who knows they can share a book that will surprise and delight someone. The sort of book that will change how the reader sees an entire genre. A book that a friend will cherish for the rest of his or her life. Aching God was that sort of book for me.
My TBR list is long and neglected. I rarely include sequels on it, as I don’t read many (not even sequels to books I enjoy.) And yet after I finished The Iconoclasts Trilogy—the first series in a long time that I have read to completion—my TBR is even longer. Dark fantasy is interesting to me once again. An entire genre beckons anew, thanks to Mike’s amazing story.
It should be no surprise at this point that I recommend these books almost without reservation (to clarify that “almost,” let me reiterate that blanket content warning here. If reading about horrible things can bring you to revisit your own suffering, this may not be the series for you.) I can say that the audiobooks are well performed by the talented Simon Vance, and that the paperbacks look great on a bookshelf. If Kindle Unlimited is your thing, it’s there as well.
Yet these particulars and caveats are just background to the pitch that I wish Mike had given me in a hotel in Detroit a few years back:
The Iconoclasts Trilogy has everything you want in an epic tale: rich and textured world building, heroes you root for, and high-stakes adventure. Mike Shel weaves dark and brooding atmosphere, memorable villains, and merciless dungeons with a mastery that makes his books stand out among dark fantasy; yet it’s his deft handling of trauma and healing that make them some of the most memorable stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
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