ARC provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.
Cover art illustrated by: NinoIs
Cover art designed by: Shawn T. King
Eleventh Cycle by Kian N. Ardalan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: Mistland (Book #1 of 4)
Genre: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Epic fantasy, Grimdark Fantasy, Dark Fantasy
Pages: 802 pages (Paperback)
Published: 1st February 2023 (Self-Published)
Eleventh Cycle is one of the best books I’ve read. Berserk and Dark Souls fans, this page-turning epic grimdark fantasy novel is written for us.
“A warrior is not a killer, is not someone who only fights with axe and shield: it is someone who fights for a reason. I still maintain my warrior spirit by choosing to protect my tribe, to protect my family.”
Eleventh Cycle is due to be published less than a month from now, but I first stumbled upon it on December 2021 when Ardalan revealed the title and cover art (illustrated by NinoIs, designed by Shawn T. King) on Twitter. Since then, I was instantly intrigued. And this book was submerged into my list of most anticipated novels with ease. Even though I haven’t read anything by the author yet back then! This is indeed my first time reading a book by Kian N. Ardalan, but seeing the cover art and hearing the main inspirations for Eleventh Cycle back then was more than enough to seal the deal. And ever since I got the ARC two months ago, I have been inching to read this novel but decided to hold it off until January because my instinct says I would love this one, and I wanted to start my year with terrific books. Fortunately, despite my high expectations, Eleventh Cycle is undoubtedly an excellent character-driven grimdark fantasy novel. Before I proceed with my review, this book is not for the faint of heart. The author has included content warnings at the beginning of the book, and I will repeat that in this review. I do not think any of these content warnings mean spoilers, but if you want to be completely surprised entering this book, I will mention the content warnings at the end of this review.
“Stories had a bad habit of taking on a life of their own, spreading like a disease, growing until it no longer could no longer be contained.”
Eleventh Cycle is the first out of planned four—or five—books in the Mistland series by Kian N. Ardalan. As some of you may know already, this is a novel inspired by Kentaro Miura’s Berserk and FromSoftware’s Soulsborne franchise, specifically in the case of this book, Dark Souls trilogy. It has been a thousand years since the last Seed abandoned their duty. The mists are closing in. And finally, as the Morning Bell tolls, a new Seed to purge the Evil is born, but is it too late? The rot eats away at mortals. The Witnesses pray so that they may not turn into one of the forgotten. And the constricting mists infect the lands with fear. But there is more to this tale than just the Elders and their Seeds. Four mortals will have a part to play in Minethria’s fate. A farmer girl with only love in her eyes. A warrior born to the life of a refugee. A highborn stuck between the realm of gods and men. And a woman running into the front lines and away from home.
Picture: Dalila and Mount Moirnar by Andreas Christanetoff
I absolutely loved Eleventh Cycle. A great Soulsborne (this includes Sekiro and Elden Ring) inspired fantasy novels, surprisingly and also understandably, are not as common as you might think. Countless stories could be created through being inspired by the video game franchise, but it is far from being an easy task to do right. The Soulsborne franchise is often known for its complex and intimidating storyline and difficulty. Non-players of Soulsborne tend to think we gamers are masochists when we constantly play, rage, and love playing these challenging games. But that is not the case. These games teach you to be careful; do not play carelessly. They teach you that repetition and learning are keys to success. They teach you to always pay attention to your surroundings. More importantly, these games teach you that you CAN overcome adversities in life with perseverance. That high-level satisfaction feeling you get when you overcome difficult bosses in these games is utterly rewarding and missing from many games lately. And my point is this. There are MANY things to love in these games (a single review won’t be enough to cover the details of it). At the same time, Eleventh Cycle managed to capture many of them, including one of the main essences of the recurring themes of Dark Souls games: perseverance in the face of injustice and a bleeding world.
“Suffering can be beautiful. It brings despair and melancholia, but there is a purity to it that bears unmarred authenticity. The kind that motivates you to help others. Your suffering urges you on, powers your need to help. There is a maudlin beauty to that.”
Themes aside, it is hard to translate what made the Soulsborne franchise so beloved into a novel. The main story in Dark Souls is (relatively) pretty straightforward. However, understanding every character’s background, lore, and details of these games that enriched the quality of the narrative and world-building of the series will require deep dedication and multiple playthroughs. Cryptic storytelling is a staple aspect of the franchise. So, is Eleventh Cycle hard to understand? No. Far from it. Rest assured, the majority of the main story in Eleventh Cycle is so much more accessible than its inspiration: Dark Souls, and I totally appreciate this. The world-building and the secrets, however, are another topic. And I will talk about this later. In a similar way to Dark Souls games, Ardalan made sure the main plot progression in Eleventh Cycle is never difficult to understand. I think this is incredibly important. Video games and novels are two different mediums. You cannot fully adapt or replicate what worked in video games to novels. And I think that is the mistake of the graphic novel adaptations of Dark Souls and Bloodborne. They made everything so cryptic, even edgy, reliant on fan services, that the adaptations became incomprehensible. If we managed to solve the riddle or their dialogues, there was no feeling of satisfaction. Ardalan successfully transported the essential elements that made the Dark Souls trilogy irresistibly engrossing and rewarding into a novel format. While also making sure the story he tells here is his own creation. The narrative never lets its hook off me, and I ended up reading this incredible 800 pages book in four days. I could’ve read it faster, but I also did not want to because my time with it would end too soon. I read this at an astonishing pace of 200 pages per day, and believe me, with how busy my life is now, reading at this pace seldom happens. The act of putting this book down felt wrong. Ardalan’s beautiful, lyrical at times, and yet accessible prose compels me non-stop. And the accessibility does not mean the world and lore of the novel failed to match the epic scope of the world-building and lore contained in Dark Souls games.
“It is said that the flame knight and frost knight were twins in their mortal days. Now, as Elder Knights, they share such a bond where upon their union, their kindling brings forth a power to be reckoned with. —Tales of the Elder, by Nuniya.”
Yes, we need to talk about world-building. More than usual, I am entering this book more critically about its world-building. Ardalan was brave enough to call this book a love letter to Berserk and Dark Souls, after all. I believe with these two franchises, a certain level of quality has to be met, and Ardalan confronted them head-on straight. It was tough for me to find issues with the in-depth lore of Eleventh Cycle. The immersive misty world of Minethria that is brimming with history and secrets felt like this could totally be the world that FromSoftware has created for their games. The all-powerful Elder King in Mount Moirnar oversees the world of Minethria with their Elder Beings. There were beings, Seeds, and races birthed from each cycle such as Xelxidon of the light, Muriya the Protector as the great giant with a hammer that conjured earthquakes, and Kaelu the Silent that brought forth the age of Dragons. Or maybe akar (a race born from the end of the 6th cycle with large charcoal-hued bodies and monstrous strength), giant flying stingray (like in Demon’s Souls), and so many more. Then there is also the giant Elder Blacksmith bound to his eternal forge charged with forging weapons for the gods. I’ll let Ardalan’s description of the Elder Blacksmith speaks for itself regarding the vivid quality of his prose.
“The Blacksmith awaited, his presence clouded by the encompassing heat. He was known as an Elder of legend who fashioned countless artefacts. Some were said to have found their way to the hands of Seeds, while others were given to the world of Minethria, waiting to be found once more. At first glance, I would have thought this being was a product of nature, a serendipitous result of rock formations and volcanic discharge that just so happened to form some likeness to man. But then this force of nature moved and struck a veined hammer to anvil, evoking sparks like a primordial god. The giant was made entirely out of molten rock, where glowing fire flowed between the cracks of the charred, sediment flesh. We were to the being what ants were to us, as a simple press of the glowing thumb could completely crush us. The Blacksmith was suspended in air, their lower half replaced by a spherical solid boulder, hooked chains spread from its corners and were mounted into the stone dome. Their beard was made of flame, like a perpetually burning nest that birthed ember; their head was entirely encased by a mould of rock except for the eyes that pierced out like smouldering coals. The Elder had four arms, two on either side, entirely of moulded earth with crags of lava running through.”
The existence of The Blacksmith will have significance to Dark Souls fans. I do believe Soulsborne lore masters like VaatiVidya (read this book, Vaati) would have a blast dissecting and analyzing the intricacies and mysteries of the world in Eleventh Cycle. Recent player of Elden Ring might think Eleventh Cycle is inspired by Elden Ring as well. With the existence of Elder Kings, Elder Guards (the one in the cover art), and the unstoppable rot, it is understandable why readers/gamers might think that. However, Elden Ring was not in the equation when this book was written. This is all pure coincidence but also fitting to themes of decay and corruption often encountered in Soulsborne games. Eleventh Cycle is rich with history and lore, and we haven’t even dissected all the details of it yet. What we attained from the epigraphs, consider these as item descriptions in Soulsborne games, were enough to conjure infinite possibilities for the author and reader to explore and imagine. For example, if Ardalan ever decides to explore the past cycles and Seeds as a series, he could. And I believe it would work magnificently. That’s how rich the world in Eleventh Cycle is. At this moment, talking in detail about the world-building of Eleventh Cycle alone would require at least one dedicated video. Once more books in the series are published, I think a series of videos exploring this are in order. My mind is still trying to connect the dots and secrets in the epigraphs and narrative, and I don’t think I will succeed at it until I do another read-through, which I will definitely do in the future.
Picture: Erefiel Numaya by Harkale Linai
I have given my approval to the intricate world-building, Dark Souls inspirations, and powerful themes. But I have not actually discussed THE aspect that elevated Eleventh Cycle to becoming one of my favorite books of all time: the characterizations. The character work in Eleventh Cycle is superbly-written. And whether you have played Dark Souls or not, as long that you are a fan of character-driven grimdark fantasy, Eleventh Cycle is a must-read. The four main POV characters, Dalila, Nora, Chroma (an akar), and Erefiel Numaya (a Nephilim), have their chapters told in a first-person perspective. And despite this, Ardalan nailed their voice distinction and personality for these four main characters so damn well. On top of that, we also have the POV chapters of the Eleventh Seed, Ievarus themselves, written in a third-person perspective. I feel like I have gotten to really know these characters as real people. Two main characters here are inspired by two characters from Berserk by Kentaro Miura. One is inspired by Caska, and the other is loosely inspired by Griffith. And I LOVE all these characters.
“I was like you once… I believed myself unstoppable, for if someone doesn’t fear death, then nothing can stop them. But there is more than one type of death. I know that now. I went to that place and managed to return. Shame: shame can be far worse than death.”
I know I have mentioned in my review this is a grimdark fantasy novel, and as far as graphic content and brutal themes go, it truly belongs in the subgenre. I have no doubt many readers will agree with that. But the main POV characters don’t actually fall into the morally grey or villainous characters often discovered in grimdark fantasy. They are good and virtuous characters trying to, against all odds, survive while protecting the people they love. But the injustice and carnage the main characters have to deal with? Yes. They unquestionably belong in the grimdark sub-genre, without a shadow of a doubt. The world in Eleventh Cycle is extraordinarily merciless. When I thought things would not get any worse, they did. The physical and mental damage done to one of the main characters in this novel is one of the most messed up and fatal devastation inflicted on a main character I have ever read, out of all storytelling mediums. It was crushing. Once again, if you are not sure about this, check the content warning at the front of the book or at the end of this review. I can even tell you the one chapter to avoid reading if you want to experience the story without reading the graphic scenes. These scenes were rough, uncomfortable, and disturbing to read, as they were intended to be. But whether you are okay with reading the scenes or not, they were included to eventually highlight a contrast in humanity. They showcased vice and virtue. How far humans will succumb and how much unrelenting determination a human can unleash, for better or worse. Most importantly, everything is to spotlight how bright and mighty a tiny spark of hope is in the cage of overwhelming darkness. To me, the payoff is so rewarding.
“Art impacts different people in different ways. The more sensitive an individual is, the more they may be affected. One way to overcome the resistance of such a troglodyte is to gather crowds to perform for. To see one’s neighbour be imbibed by emotion makes even the most uncultured person impressionable.—Higher teachings of the Muses, by Golanad Ricks.
At the end of the day, Eleventh Cycle is an exceptional character-focused fantasy novel about hope, fear, compassion, rage, will, and humanity. It has powerful themes and narrative, masterful characterizations, beautifully vivid yet accessible prose, meticulous world-building with a plethora of mysteries, and tension-packed explosive action sequences as if they were penned by an artist with scarlet ink. The story is dark and violent, the emotions the empathizing characters felt were palpable, and it does not shy away from revealing the light and darkness of humanity to its maximum effect. Epic grimdark fantasy, Berserk, and Soulsborne fans, the breathtaking Dark Souls inspired fantasy novel we have been waiting for is finally here. Although this year has only just begun, I am thrilled and confident saying this is an early contender for my favorite book of the year; I am sure it will, at least, be in my top 10 spots by the end of 2023. I absolutely loved it, as you can probably tell from the length of this review, and I haven’t even discussed the greatness of each POV character and the battle scenes here. But this review is long enough already. I will let you read this book and find out for yourself. Eleventh Cycle has become one of my favorite books of all time. I will reread this book someday to investigate the details of the lore. Maybe when the second book, Forgotten Seed, which I needed yesterday, is ready to be published. But in the meantime, pre-order and read this book if you are a fan of grimdark or dark fantasy, whatever you want to call it, and Berserk and Dark Souls. I do not see the possibility of you not liking this book if you love these three. Experience Eleventh Cycle. Praise the sun, good hunter.
“Eleventh Cycle is a story about many things, and tackles subjects which many may feel uncomfortable with. It deals with disability, with mental illness, with abuse, and even descriptive sexual content. I included these matters not for the sake of it. Not to simply shock with a blunt weapon, but rather to deliver the image of a raw world. The material this book is based on is dark; it doesn’t shy away from unsettling matters. However, it is about perseverance in the face of absolute hopelessness. It is about tearing down the veil and facing whatever face evil wears. It is about people living in an indifferent world which will pull no punches, and finding your own path. However, I need to also take a moment and mention the late Kentaro Miura, author of Berserk. Without him, the Souls franchise may not be where it is today and this book may never have reached your hands.”—Kian Ardalan
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
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