Nathan’s review of Eleventh Cycle by Kian N. Ardalan
I was very excited to dive into this book because it seems to be the current “cool kid on the block” in the fantasy book reviewing community. It seems like everyone is reading and raving about this book. While I don’t think my opinions on the book quite reach the heights of some of these other reviewers, I still found this an intense and exciting books worth checking out if you are seeking your next chonky grimdark fantasy.
I should get to two caveats before I continue with my review:
This book is often described as being inspired by Dark Souls or Berserk. While I have passing familiarity with both of those, I have never played/read either of them, and so I don’t have those to color or inform my opinion of the book. If you don’t have any experience with these either, don’t worry. I still enjoyed the book immensely without them.
I’m coming to this book a bit late, and I have been following the hype for this book for a couple of weeks now. This means that I started this book with very high expectations. I probably over-hyped the book in my own mind a bit too much, which definitely colored my perception of it.
Eleventh Cycle tells the story of four main characters. Delila, a young girl who discovers she has magic powers in a world that doesn’t accept witches. Chroma, a young akar (an orc-like species) living in a human world that hates the akar. Nora, a soldier who escaped her cult-like family. Erefiel, a high ranking solider and the son of a god-like figure who has major daddy-issues. Between the four of them, they embark on a journey of self-discovery, conflict, and ultimately intersect with the godly realms that decide the fate of the world.
As you can tell from my brief character descriptions above, this is not a happy book. Characters are pushed to (and sometimes even past) their breaking points. This is a grimdark world of pain, war, racism, and more. Horrors both human and cosmic are always dwelling around every corner. Sudden and intense deaths are common, discrimination (species, religion, etc.) is rampant, and people’s everyday lives are not what I would call particularly happy. This book is not for the faint of heart, but readers looking for truly unsettling dark fantasy will find so much to eat up here. Looking for a headless character with arms reaching out of their neck holding their eyes and mouth? Well, you’ll find it here. Nothing usually gets to me, but there were definite moments in the book when I would recoil at what I just read (and I mean it in the best way possible).
But underneath the darky and grim veneer is a story of humanity. As much as this novel mucks around in thematic and atmospheric mud, the core of the novel is hope, persistence, and perseverance. Despite the literal and figurative shit that the characters endure throughout Eleventh Cycle, the characters develop and grow through these encounters. It is almost like some kind of emotional power-leveling as every character gets knocked down and yet finds another way to pull themselves up, all the stronger for it. This isn’t the brand of grimdark that suggests that “everything sucks and that’s it”, but its ethos is more akin to “everything sucks, but maybe if we work hard enough we can make it 1% better”. So, not a happy book my any means but Ardalan avoids sheer nihilism and themes of defeat.
Underneath the blanket of melancholy and woe covering Ardalan’s world are breathing and feeling people. The grimdark elements and plot never form a barrier between the reader and the characters. I deeply felt all of the character’s successes and failures; personally, I was most drawn to Delila and Chroma. Despite their extraordinary circumstances (and even the fact that Chroma is not human), their plights were relatable and personable. Ardalan painted each character with immense care and depth, which definitely helped me keep turning the pages.
And I cannot talk about surprisingly human and relatable characters without talking about the Eleventh Seed themself, Ievarus. What could have been simply a plot device, Ardalan turned into a fully fleshed out and surprisingly likable character. Ievarus has no understanding of the real world nor of human customs, and yet this lack of knowledge comes out in such real and lived in ways that by the end of the novel I liked Ievarus more than any other character.
Before moving on, and before I convince everyone this is somehow a happy book, I have to emphasize again that a lot of terrible things happen to the characters. Readers should check trigger warnings. While Ardalan mostly uses these terrible events to great effect (mostly for character and thematic development), he also doesn’t hold back. There is one particular moment with Nora that might divide some readers in terms of how the action is used (she has already gone through a lot by this point in the book, and so this just seemed an unnecessary plot development since her character didn’t technically need it) and what is and is not actually described on screen. This is the one and only time that Ardalan kind of toes the line in terms of content; it was not long enough to turn me away from the book, but I am interested to see what the larger perception is.
Ardalan builds a beautifully dark and lived in world. The layers sitting beneath the surface of what is actually on the page are evident as the world has history, depth, and character. The worldbuilding is definitely aided by epigraphs at the beginning of every chapter that dive into the history and cosmology of this world’s inhabitants, but even just subtle character interactions and behaviors exhibit clear and deep cultural backgrounds. In fact, there are so many small intricacies to the worldbuilding that Eleventh Cycle will make for a rewarding reread. Ardalan doesn’t hold your hands with the worldbuilding; the reader is expected to pick up on things as the story moves along. I know there is so much that I missed just situating myself in the plot, and I cannot wait to explore this world further through rereads and into the sequels.
I think the element of the book that slightly dampened my enthusiasm for the book was its sheer length. Now, I am always up for a big chonky fantasy book that I can barely hold in my hands. However, fantasy authors need to justify that page length, and I’m not sure that Ardalan really did here. While reading I could only imagine a slightly shorter version of this book (the 600 page version instead of the 800 page version), and how the book might have been better for it. There were long stretches of the book where nothing new was happening, or where we were covering stretches of time that retread plot points and characters arcs that we had already covered.
Part of this might have been the result of trying to make sure all four of the main POV character’s storylines lined up so that the big confluence of character meet-ups could happen later in the book. Some of the characters really needed the time to develop (Nora in her character development and Delila in the sheer amount of worldbuilding that had to occur around her), while others like Chroma and Erefial were just along for the ride. This is a common problem with long, multi-POV epics, and if this is something that tires in you books, then you might want to look elsewhere.
On the positive side, despite the novel’s sheer length Ardalan demonstrated a lot of restraint in terms of the sprawl of the story. Despite the page length and high stakes of the book, Ardalan keeps the actual story relatively small. While it does take a while for all of the POV characters to meet up, they do constantly bounce off each other in various ways throughout the book. This isn’t a Wheel of Time or Song of Ice and Fire situation where it takes thousands of pages for POV characters to run into each other. This restraint allowed Ardalan to never lose sight of the more human elements of the story.
Concluding Thoughts: A dark cosmic horror novel that also explores the good in humanity, this book is perfect for fans of grimdark and epic fantasy. The length of the book betrays it just a little bit, as the middle of the book starts to drag while Ardalan moves all of the characters into position. Luckily, the characters are strong enough to push readers through the draggy bits. While imperfect, this book read differently than any other fantasy book I have picked up, and I recommend to readers looking for their next chonky book.