Sin Eater, book two of Mike Shel’s Iconoclasts series, begins with an empire in decay. When a beloved monarch falls ill and priestly magic and the best physicians fail to cure her, the clergy of an obscure god of thieves and tricksters save her life. Her subjects’ joy over her renewed health is short lived, however. As the queen becomes more and more prone to bouts of violent madness, her court discovers the dark price of her recovery, and all who attempt to depose her meet violent and seemingly coincidental ends. As the queen enters the 141st year of her life, now reigning as little more than a malevolent, cannibalistic corpse, this novel follows a party of troubled adventurers striving to end her eternal tyranny and deal with their own demons in the process. (Some unavoidable spoilers for book one follow.)
Sin Eater picks up shortly after Aching God leaves off and follows up on a pair of book one’s most tantalizing loose threads: the cursed and dangerously insane queen Geneviva and the god-slaying sword, Szaa’da’shaela. While Sir Auric Manteo (a retired swordsman coping with the loss of his wife and son and the horrific slaughter of his adventuring companions on a quest gone wrong) returns as a main character, this book shifts from his single POV in Aching God to the split perspective of him and his daughter Agnes (an up-and-coming adventurer in her own right). To a lesser extent, readers also experience occasional forays into the perspective of a mysterious old man struggling to hold the empire together while the other protagonists undertake their journey.
While I wasn’t expecting such a major change from the Auric-focused POV of book one, I thought seeing things from both of the Manteos’ perspectives added a lot to the narrative. Auric and Agnes’s strained relationship is a centerpiece of the novel, and experiencing it from both sides did a lot to develop the pair. I also really enjoyed Shel’s choice to throw the old man into the mix. In addition to being an enticingly mysterious character in his own right, his chapters provide a window into just how far and how fast things are devolving in the royal court and add another layer of tension to the narrative as the rest of the characters race to find a solution.
Joining Agnes and Auric is a cast of equally excellent supporting characters that make up their adventuring party. These include Chalca, a witty actor-turned-rogue, Kennah, a gruff swordsman recovering from the recent death of his dearest companion, and Queelb, a deeply traumatized sorcerer with a particularly disturbing brand of magic. The priestess Sira Edjani returns as well, and serves as the group’s healer. While it’s easy to recognize which tabletop trope each falls into, Shel does a great job of making them more than stats on a sheet. As the title suggests, Sin Eater is almost a confessional booth for its characters, gradually fleshing them out through their secrets, shames, and past traumas (some implied and some explicit). If I had one minor complaint about Shel’s characters, it would simply be that I wanted more on-the-page time getting to know a few of them who didn’t have as big a share in the limelight.
Sin Eater is a bit of a slow burn, with the main “quest” of the novel not beginning until the book is halfway over. But like the Aching God before it, I felt like the journey was just as gripping and important as the destination. The adventure’s prologue never reads like prologue, and the character and worldbuilding setup in early chapters has a fantastic payoff in the end. Between this and a few deft plot twists cunning enough to satisfy the most malevolent of trickster gods, I found this novel enthralling from start to finish.
Overall, my favorite aspect of this book and the Iconoclasts series as a whole is the way Shel takes classic tabletop adventuring tropes and thinks through their real-life consequences and implications. Violence and trauma aren’t just a bad roll on the d20 and a failed saving throw–they inflict permanent physical and mental consequences on the characters. While any work of fiction reflects the talents and interests of its creator to some degree, Shel’s time in the tabletop games industry and background in psychotherapy really shine in the pages of this book. Between that and a demonstrable mastery of tension of and dread, I’ve come to see Shel as one of indie fantasy’s finest voices.
While this book contains fewer horror elements than its predecessor, I’m confident fellow grimdark fans will enjoy its startlingly bleak worldbuilding, deep and realistically flawed characters, and its exploration and subversion of the classic fantasy adventurer archetype. Aching God set my expectations high, and Sin Eater definitely met them. In all, I’d give this book a strong 4.5 out of 5 stars. I can only hope book three comes out before my 141st birthday.