REVIEW: Eleventh Cycle by Kian N. Ardalan

Last Updated on February 12, 2024

With its epic worldbuilding, hauntingly beautiful aesthetic, and well-realized protagonists, Eleventh Cycle is a tour de force of grimdark fantasy and a bold statement from emerging indie author Kian N. Ardalan. The novel takes place in the mist-encircled land of Minethria as the prophesied Eleventh Seed is born. This offspring of the Elder King may, perhaps, serve as savior to the mortal beings of this war-torn land.

Eleventh CycleEleventh Cycle achieves Brandon Sanderson-level worldbuilding, but with a murkier tone and a more nuanced execution. Although the name of Ardalan’s series, Mistland, recalls Sanderson’s Mistborn, the world of Eleventh Cycle has more in common with The Stormlight Archive, particularly with how Ardalan introduces multiple races that vilify each other without knowing why they are enemies.

Despite the similarities, Ardalan’s world is a lot darker than anything in Sanderson’s universe. This is grimdark fantasy after all, and Eleventh Cycle doesn’t shy away from the dark realities of war, reaching a level of despair and brutality on par with R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War.

What makes Eleventh Cycle so effective is that this darkness is balanced with a big heart. Ardalan shares Sanderson’s talent at creating empathetic, broken characters, bringing a deeply personal focus to a vast, complex world. At its core, Eleventh Cycle is a character-driven fantasy featuring four mortal protagonists living in a land that is indifferent to their struggles.

Ardalan builds deep connections to each of the four protagonists through their first-person narration. We first meet Dalila, a farmer girl with a mysterious ability that leads to conflict with her conservative family. Next is Nora, who escapes abusive parents to become a fierce warrior full of hatred toward the opposing akar race. Eleventh Cycle then shifts perspective to Chroma, an adolescent akar who struggles with finding his place within akar society. Finally, we are introduced to the high-ranking captain Erefiel, who is caught between worlds as a half-human and half-Zerub, a race that blends human and animal anatomies.

Ardalan is a master at developing realistic, relatable characters. As I progressed through Eleventh Cycle, each of the four protagonists took turns being my favorite character. Although they inhabit a world so different from our own, their struggles reflect universal themes of identity, acceptance, friendship, and love.

In addition to the four first-person protagonists, we also read the third-person story of the Eleventh Seed. Despite the glorious prophecies, the Eleventh Seed is just an innocent child trying to understand human emotions and make sense out of this complex, violent world.

The story itself begins as fragments told from these multiple perspectives, allowing us to build emotional connections to each of the individual characters before their plot lines eventually intersect. It’s especially rewarding to see how everything comes together in the latter part of the book, as many of the subtle connections become clear. Ardalan also keeps us guessing through a variety of unexpected plot twists.

Eleventh Cycle is a compulsively readable novel. Despite its nearly 800-page girth, the story flies by quickly. Kian N. Ardalan’s writing has tightened considerably since his previous novel, The Fantastically Underwhelming Epic of a Dead Wizard and an Average Bard, which adopted a more conversational style and walked a thin line between epic fantasy and self-parody. At its best, Eleventh Cycle repeatedly soars to a Mark Lawrence level of eloquence. There is also a tear-jerking line about fading memories that reminded me of my favorite passage from Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.

The novel’s readability is paired with a keen attention to detail in worldbuilding and character development. Kian N. Ardalan has created an expansive world with a rich history and culture. Eleventh Cycle is an immediately enjoyable novel but also rewards multiple rereads, as additional details and connections become clear. I also love its soft magic system, which is the perfect accompaniment to the novel’s mysterious aesthetic.

Eleventh Cycle checks all the boxes of a grimdark masterpiece. It is a stunning achievement, establishing Kian N. Ardalan as one of the most exciting new voices in speculative fiction.

5/5

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John Mauro

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.