Kian N. Ardalan’s new novel, Eleventh Cycle, is a tour de force of grimdark fantasy, featuring epic worldbuilding, well-realized protagonists, and a hauntingly beautiful aesthetic. Eleventh Cycle is the first volume of Ardalan’s Mistland series. Read our review of Eleventh Cycle here.
I recently had the pleasure of discussing with Kian N. Ardalan about his new novel, his evolution as a writer, and the future of grimdark fantasy.
KNA: Oh man. Hard to answer. I was into books since a young age, but it had to be something dark. I think I first got into fantasy through videogames, and eventually I came across Mark Lawrence, and it’s been my favourite genre ever since.
As for when I started writing, it was definitely as a child. I wasn’t very gifted academically, but when we had creative writing during English class and got to read our writing out loud, it was the one time everyone held their breath and it felt good.
Around 2017 is when I picked it up as a hobby on /r/writingprompts. Everyone was just so supportive and encouraging that it eventually went from a hobby to becoming a job.
GdM: One of the inspirations for Eleventh Cycle is the Dark Souls video game. Could you tell us more specifically about how Dark Souls influenced your new novel?
KNA: Haha. This is a rather difficult question to answer with brevity, but I will give my best. I think part of it was that it had to be a Dark Fantasy world with haunting beauty. The world is indifferent to the struggles of our characters and I wanted to capture that concept. I’d liken it to a wilting flower where the slow decay is beautiful in its own right. I heard somewhere that no matter where you took a still-shot from the Dark Souls game, it was supposed to look like a haunting yet beautiful painting, and I wanted to capture that.
The other aspect is story threads which aren’t expressed overtly but rather through research/close attention. Miyazaki (creator of Dark Souls) once said that he was reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, but since he wasn’t entirely fluent in English, he had to do research after finishing the books, which led him to have epiphanies about storylines after the fact. I believe the western world is obsessed with efficiency. Chekhov’s gun is the embodiment of this. I allowed myself not to have to outline every link between every storyline and allow the reader to connect dots if they so wish.
GdM: What are some of your other inspirations for Eleventh Cycle beyond Dark Souls?
KNA: Other than Hollow Knight (which is just another game), I’d say Angel’s Egg. It is a haunting anime movie directed by Mamoru Oshii (maker of Ghost in the Shell) in 1985. At 1h and 15 minutes, it has only a handful of dialogue and the rest is just symbolic imagery. That movie has left a lasting impression on me and for good reason.
The only other inspiration of note may be Berserk, which also influenced the Dark Soul games, and of course Lovecraft for the more eldritch horrors.
GdM: Each of the main characters in Eleventh Cycle experiences tremendous suffering. Was this planned from the time you started writing the novel? Is suffering necessary for readers to build a strong emotional bond with the characters?
KNA: I knew early on that some characters would go through hell, but I didn’t have the full picture for all of them.
I’d say suffering is very human. The degree of suffering is a greater question I feel. My debut had characters facing struggles but nowhere near as grim or raw as with Eleventh Cycle. Yet I will argue one facet of this: it isn’t that you need suffering to build a bond with a character, but you do need to understand how they process that suffering. The death of a close friend won’t make the protagonist relatable as much as how you represent their grief.
GdM: To me, Eleventh Cycle feels like a new style of grimdark fantasy. What was your philosophy while writing it?
KNA: That is incredibly kind of you to say! I think there is a belief at the moment that Grimdark is made to horrify and shock. It’s like being drawn towards the grim and dark which is appealing for many.
I don’t think that’s what I was trying to do with Eleventh Cycle. For example, George R.R. Martin’s prose in A Game of Thrones comes across as quite blunt. It has a bludgeoning impact. With Eleventh Cycle, I wanted there to be beauty in the prose even when depicting horrible moments. I wanted to find beauty in the melancholy. And at the same time, my focus wasn’t simply on shock value, but really to capture the human essence in suffering and how to move past that. In a way, I want the cumulative experience of the entire series to be morose, hopeful, and most importantly cathartic.
GdM: What are your thoughts on the future of grimdark as a genre?
KNA: I can’t really comment on the future of grimdark as a whole, but I can comment on what I hope. Stories, in general, are a representation of a time’s zeitgeist. I didn’t necessarily intend to write a grimdark book, but I wrote a story that resonates with grimdark themes instead. I hope that grimdark will continue to move away from being edgy or grim for the sake of it and will continue to provide an opportunity to explore the rawness of what it means to be human even at the darkest of times. Also, as a side note, I wish to dissuade people from the idea that grimdark is mature or adult simply because it has such dark subjects. I truly did write Eleventh Cycle with the intent of causing my reader anguish, but controlled anguish. They had to come out the other side faced with a horrible reality while I did my best to show that even in that darkness, there is hope.
GdM: The worldbuilding feels so natural and immersive in Eleventh Cycle. How did you go about introducing this new, expansive world in such an organic fashion?
KNA: Oh man. That’s hard to say. I wish to disclaim that I am a VERY self-critical individual. Even with all the mounting praise for Eleventh Cycle, I still think I could have polished it more. I could have gone a lot lighter on the exposition early on.
But for when I did do it right, I think it was about showing the characters and their relationship to the world at large. One of my favourite concepts is the forgotten curse. If the characters referred to this nonchalantly and didn’t seem to care, neither would the reader. But the existential dread and fear which comes from thinking that you might one day disappear with no trace and no one would remember you speaks to something very primal in us.
GdM: Your writing has evolved significantly since your first published novel, The Fantastically Underwhelming Epic of a Dead Wizard and an Average Bard. How have you honed your writing style in recent years?
KNA: I wish I could say I cracked the secret code to good writing, but I didn’t. Just practice makes you better. Beta readers help a lot too. Whenever I received critique, I internalized it and then had it in the back of my mind while writing. I think joining a critique group and looking closely at what others do well and how you can improve is the best course of action. I still feel like I have a long way to go as a writer, and I doubt that feeling will ever go away. To be clear, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
GdM: What are your thoughts on traditional vs indie publishing? What advice do you have for new authors looking to publish their first novel?
KNA: That’s a tough question that I can’t possibly answer with its deserved attention in a paragraph. But I’ll be succinct. There are benefits to both, and I’d advise anyone interested to do their research. One thing that I want to be absolutely clear about is that self-published books are on the rise and you can tell which ones are seriously polished. Additionally, self-published books allow for more variety in a field where trad pub are looking for the safest bet.
As for advice, I’d say that if you have to ask that question, you still need to be patient. Join a critique group, make writer-friends, and just find excuses to write a story and learn from it. Rarely is your first fully finished book the one deserving to be published.
If anyone wants my full opinion on this, they are always welcome to contact me.
GdM: Tell us about your day job as a writer for Actors Everywhere. Is it difficult to find the energy to write your own novels after spending eight hours writing at your day job?
KNA: At Actors Everywhere, I write fiction novels across genres where my boss has the final say. It really is as simple as that, and yet I feel very fortunate to be working for them. As a residency writer, I get a proper salary for the work that I do.
And it absolutely is difficult. But I believe meditation helps with that endeavor and if anything, the opportunity has led me to improve my writing as well.
GdM: Could you tell us more about your plans for the Mistland series? What’s next after Eleventh Cycle?
KNA: Ohhh. I am very excited for what is to come next. I can’t go into detail since the first book isn’t out yet, but I am happy to announce that Book 2 is called Forgotten Seed. Readers of the first book may already be able to theorize what it will be about.
But what I think is very cool is that there are ten previous cycles, including the period before the Contract of Time was forged. This allows so much room for short stories, novellas, and more.
I am very, very excited for the future of Eleventh Cycle but can’t share more without spoiling the events of the future books.
Read Eleventh Cycle by Kian N. Ardalan