“Carelessness will find no clemency in this place.”
The voice of Darkest Dungeon‘s Ancestor relentlessly worms its way through my brain as I read Mike Shel’s Iconoclasts series – a dark/high/epic fantasy series focused on a league of adventurers whose purpose is to explore and plunder the ancient ruins of a long-lost demonic gods-worshipping civilization. The Syraeic League pursues knowledge above all, though a fair bit of wealth comes with the job.
Our protagonist is Auric Manteo, a retired League swordsman of some renown who must pick up his sword once again in order to put to rest a curse that plagues the Citadel, as well as his only daughter. Now stop. This story isn’t your clichéd “We need you to come out of retirement boss, you were the best once, you can be again and only you can save us all!” kind of deal. Auric didn’t retire due to accumulating enough wealth and success to call it quits. He wasn’t the best. Auric’s last expedition ended with him being rescued from the haunted Barrowlands, covered in blood, madness in his eyes and conversing with the severed head of his closest friend and Syraeic sister. The sole survivor of his party.
Now Auric must return to the Barrowlands to return an accursed artifact that poisons the Citadel and his last remaining family. The Syraeic League’s numbers have already been devastated, and there are few able adventurers left whom haven’t succumbed to the supernatural blight.
“Reeling, gasping, taken over the edge, into Madness!“
Plots progress. An adventuring party forms with each member fulfilling a specialized role intended to increase their chances of success. Provisions are prepared. Accounts of past expeditions are retold and relived. Auric fears his insanity will reemerge upon reaching their destination, his mind actively plagued by the threat of stress overwhelming him.
As Iconoclasts sunk its claws deeper into me, an urge I hadn’t felt in years tore through me. I really friggin’ wanted to play Darkest Dungeon. It had been years. ~150 hours poured into it once upon a time, but never completing the game. I redownloaded it on my Switch with renewed vigor, and named my hamlet “The Syraeic League”.
The flavor of Iconoclasts mixes beautifully with the brutally dark dungeon crawling that comprises Darkest Dungeon. Stress, doubt, fear of madness. The scars of past expeditions. Constructing a party of adventurers, each their own type of specialist. The very real threat of death due to the smallest misstep. A league of adventurers dedicated to dungeon crawling, learning of what is buried, and retrieving riches from devious depths.
These two worlds feel almost intertwined, as if Darkest Dungeon‘s hamlet exists as a Syraeic outpost in some far off corner of the world Mike Shel created.
“This expedition, at least, promises success.”
After finishing Brian McClellan’s In the Shadow of Lightning, I was hungry for more stories taking place in a wonderfully realized fantasy world. Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I wound up picking up Iconoclasts. Figuratively at least – I have the audiobooks.
I knew nothing of Mike Shel going into Aching God. Though as I near the conclusion of Iconoclasts, it’s obvious he’s got the chops for writing engaging fantasy. There’s an epilogue in the audiobook of Iconoclasts book two Sin Eater, where Shel talks a bit about his writing journey. He’s grounded and humble, and wholly relatable to one such as myself – a fellow D&D nerd with aspirations of becoming a fantasy writer.
“Aching God was itself a small miracle”, Shel says, “I had dreamt of writing fantasy novels since I was a teenager, but had never managed to overcome my pathological compulsion to edit what little I had written until it was squeezed dry of every ounce of joy and inspiration. I lost count of the sad, aborted attempts at crafting my own stories and more or less surrendered to the improbability of ever realizing that dream.”
Until 2009 when Shel discovered that a D&D adventure he wrote in the 90’s was very well received, even after being republished in 2007. He offered to write Pathfinder modules and more for Paizo Publishing, and was welcomed aboard. One campaign he pitched, “In the Belly of the Aching God“, was repeatedly turned down for not aligning with Paizo’s direction, yet went on to transform into the first novel of Iconoclasts.
“Beacons in the darkness, stars in the emptiness of the void.”
Learning of Shel’s story – to see his journey as a fantasy author – inspires me. There are so SO many excellent books out there, many of which don’t receive the attention they rightfully deserve. They float in the aether, lost amongst the noise of content that floods our senses every moment of the day. I don’t know the extent of success that Iconoclasts has had, yet I wanted to seize the fire it lit within me and shine some extra light on this awesomely dark fantasy series – and the similarly excellent Darkest Dungeon.
With my Iconoclasts journey drawing to a close, I’ll soon be on the hunt for a new fantasy epic to sink my teeth into. Until then..
“A moment of respite, a chance to steel oneself against upcoming horrors.”
Also, a big shout out to Simon Vance, the narrator/voice actor for the Iconoclasts audiobooks, whose voice acting is simply brilliant.
Thank you for reading fellow players / readers! Check out Mike Shel’s website for more info on Iconoclasts as well as his other work. Darkest Dungeon can be found on pretty much every digital game store, and is well worth the time.