Thus begins the posting of reviews to my website. Thus—who am I? Really fitting the pretentious writer mold here.
Anyway, this book rightly deserves to be the incipient of something, since it has inspired something in me—it's certainly achieved that, and then some.
Without further ado (I can't help myself, goddamn):
Eleventh Cycle by Kian N. Ardalan is a book about hope in the face of brutality, the acceptance of things we can't change, and of finding beauty in hopelessness. The author kindly gave me an ARC, and I can't thank him enough. It was truly a pleasure to read this book.
This book blew me away.
I don't think I can state it better than that. After seeing the gorgeous cover, it immediately captured my interest. After hearing the Dark Souls games inspired it, I knew I had to get it. Thankfully, Kian was kind enough to provide me with an ARC.
The novel opens with the perspective of a new scion of the gods, the Eleventh Seed, who is born to eliminate the 'prevailing evil' in the land (if that sounds vague, it's meant to be). I could see some people getting turned off by the "info-dumping" in this chapter. Personally, though, I think these third person Seed chapters took the form of a myth, like I was reading a passage from the Iliad about dark, secret gods. Like if Zeus looked as awful as he behaved. These third-person POV chapters are creepy and atmospheric, and they were some of my favorite chapters. They approach cosmic horror, and if you've read Thomas Ligotti or The King in Yellow, it's clear where the inspiration comes from. These chapters scaffold the story, reminding us that there are dark secrets hiding just out of sight.
The main POVs are Dalila, Erefiel, Chroma, and Nora. These are conveyed in first person, which I thought was a bold choice, but the voices of each chapter are different enough that there wasn't too much confusion. This is good, since the characters do come together and interact quite early in the story. My only complaint about the world these characters interact with (and this is a fairly minor point) is that many of the side characters have modern-sounding names, like Cassidy, and Perry. In a fantasy novel with this much thought put into the world, I would've liked to have seen older-sounding names. The first time they're mentioned, they take me out of the story a little. The bard Gallivax has a son named Dale, for example. I'm just wondering what sort of culture this is that the names follow a particular simple, if modern, style, then you get names like Gallivax and Erefiel. Anyway, I won't labor that point. It's just a minor complaint.
Each of these characters is broken in some way, and has to find their own hope and redemption. I won't spoil anything, but Ardalan really puts these characters through the ringer. A few points there I forgot to breathe, and kept reading to find out what happened next, just so I could take a breath. There are some very difficult scenes in this book to read, but I never once felt like they were exploited or they were there just to shock. It's also a testament to Ardalan's prowess that the depths of emotions felt by the characters are never second fiddle to the events. I never tear up at media in general, but this book tugged at the heartstrings so much that I was pretty damn close. There was one moment in the book that comes fairly early that cut my heart out and stomped on it.
Not only that, but Ardalan lets us linger in the despair in a way that reminds me of Kaladin from The Way of Kings - these are problems that aren't easily resolved, and these characters fail again and again because their personalities and their fears can't let them succeed. Ardalan succeeds over Sanderson in this aspect.
Speaking of succeeding over Sanderson—I much prefer Ardalan's character-driven focus for the novel, rather than Sanderson's plot-driven focus. Through their stupidity and their recklessness and their flaws, we understand why the characters make the decisions they make and feel what they feel. I've not seen deep character studies like this in fantasy since Robin Hobb and the Fitz and the Fool series. This story reads as though Haruki Murakami wrote a dark fantasy.
But at no point does Ardalan lose sight of humanity and kindness. The book is shot through with a humor that's rarely seen in dark fantasy, and it's welcome. Ardalan's previous work, The Fantastically Underwhelming Epic, is a satirical fantasy, and it's clear that the author's comedic chops were honed through writing that book. A few laugh-out-loud moments are sprinkled to great effect throughout Eleventh Cycle.
The prose is elegantly chosen and fairly unobstructive, leading to a quick read despite its nearly 800 page length. Saying that, some lines approach Mark Lawrence or Guy Gavriel Kay-levels of eloquence. One of my favorite quotes from the book comes early:
To even get a glimpse of what I saw in that realm of unfettered wilderness would be to inscribe these words to cloth and dip it into a bucket of water and watch as the ink bled.
Sometimes simple is best.
I'm insanely excited to see where the author's career goes. This is my favorite read of the year, and should be on everyone's radar. I think it has the potential to be the best fantasy novel published in 2023, self-pub or not. If it came out this year, I would say that without equivocation. I was given the paperback edition, which screams quality rarely seen in traditional publishing outside of expensive special editions. It feels like a special edition, with the incredible interior design by Shawn T. King.
With truckloads of imagination, well-realized characters, and stellar pacing and prose, Eleventh Cycle is an astounding achievement. Kian N. Ardalan has truly established himself as one that everyone should watch.