Today I am sharing my review for Eleventh Cycle by Kian Ardalan, the first book in the Mistland series. This was a book that I really wanted to love, but as you will see from the length (and I apologise…I think this is my longest review to date) that didn’t happen. There is so much potential in this book, and it has some of the most spectacular worldbuilding, but it turned out not to be the book for me.
Disclaimer – I received a copy in exchange for an honest review, all thoughts are my own.
It has been a thousand years since the last Seed abandoned their duty. The mists are closing in. Finally, the Morning Bell tolls. A new Seed 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 front lines and away from home.
Will the cycle finally be completed? Or will the mist swallow all?
“A seed is born and the evil is slain, so doth another cycle commence. Yet the last Seed born hath turned traitor, and the mists which had been pushed back, returneth.”
It has been a long time since I have felt this conflicted over a book. Eleventh Cycle is a book that has received a lot of attention and hype, and it was a highly anticipated book for me, especially with the fact that it was described as being a love letter to Beserk and Dark Souls – I am more familiar with the former than the latter, but one of my favourite reads in the last couple of years was another Dark Souls inspired book, and I was excited to see how Ardalan had combined those elements and what individual flavour it had brought to it. However, while there were some aspects that I really did love, and a wellspring of potential, this was more of a miss than a hit for me.
However, lets start at the beginning. Firstly, that cover – I would be lying if I didn’t admit that it was the sight of the cover that had me immediately hitting pre-order, before I really knew much about the book and before the reviews were rolling in. There is something compelling about the image, and the colours really pop – especially in the physical copy; although after reading the book, it was an interesting figure to choose considering the focus of this first book, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that it is a fantastic cover. Then there is the fact that there is a map – which as anyone who knows me, will know is an instant bonus point. In general, it is a beautifully put together book, that leans very much into the imagery of the world. There is also a list of characters and glossary of terms at the beginning of the book, which is a useful resource, although the fact that I found myself needing to pay so much attention to what was on the page, meant that I was using context more than the glossary itself to attach meanings to the different names.
‘The want of man was ravenous, devouring, bottomless. People came to her begging for more blood. But her strength had waned; she had given more and more, but it was never enough. Famished, simply skin on bone, she would sit upon her cathedra of bondage and bleed in a bowl at her feet.’
Now my favourite element of Eleventh Cycle was without a doubt the worldbuilding, and this was very much a case of being dropped into the ocean. From the very beginning of the prologue, Ardalan pushes us through the wardrobe and into this world, and immediately closes the door to the real world behind us. There is no hesitation at all, before we are plunged into the origin of the world, the strangeness of the Elders and the birth of the Seed – and I adored the prologue because of this approach. It was strange, almost alien, and the author does such a fantastic job of conveying that scene, that even though this was a new world, with beings we didn’t know or understand, it was immediately easy to visualise the world and the beings inhabiting it.
There is layer upon layer to this world-building, and outside a few clunky bits of dialogue, there is no info dumping. Instead, we are given epigraphs which give us history and theorising about past events, and is definitely one of my favourite ways of being given titbits that wouldn’t necessarily work their way into the main prose. And there is very much an interweaving of lore, through the tales that are told and written in the world, the beliefs that are taught and held by the characters, and I appreciated that there were so many conflicting ones – from the Witnesses to people like Dalila’s family, to those in the Sisterhood and those teaching the Seed; it was a fantastic way of establishing that this world even with the encroaching mist reducing it’s borders, was wide and varied, and conveyed a deeper history and culture without making it too heavy handed. That said, there are some aspects like the Witnesses that I would like to have seen more of, as it felt like we only caught glimpses of their beliefs, and some of it was lost to the personal interactions of the characters.
Still, this layering gives us the feeling that events in this world and individuals have a lasting impact. The present is very much built upon the past, and the future is being shaped by the present, which not only gave the world itself an organic feeling, but it raised the stakes because it meant that was what was happening now on these pages was going to be like a stone in a lake, the effects rippling outwards. At least for the most part, there were some threads like the Forgotten that seemed to have a lot of potential at the beginning of the book, but then seemed to be lost in the rest of what was happening – now maybe it will have more focus in later books, but it felt as though it was being shown as something that was going to have more of an impact and it was a little disappointing to see that thread vanish.
Another aspect of the worldbuilding that I must touch upon is the magic. There was so much potential in this, and I would certainly hope that this would be expanded on in future books, because it felt like the surface had barely been scratched and there were certainly a lot of questions. My favourite form was that of the Inspired, those who use music and arts to utilise their power, in particular the Inspired Bards were a highlight, and I particularly appreciated the dichotomy of using that in the midst of war,.
Of, the other types it didn’t feel like we got to see their full potential. Haar manipulation was one I wanted to see more of, as we got glimpses of what it could do, but also how it was counterbalanced by the danger of Haar let loose (and I do love that there was that consequence – give me all the magic with risks and costs involved), and colour/ink magic was more talked about than really experienced in this book.
Then there were the witches.
I felt as though even though witches were a prominent feature, and some of the most interesting questions raised by characters were in discussions between witches, we never got a firm grasp on them. We knew why they were feared – and again there is that weight of the past playing out in the future, and how they were dealt with and viewed, and what it cost them to live a life that was deemed acceptable by those holding their chains. But, it never felt like we got a firm grasp on their powers, and how they came to have them, what was it that made them different from the other magic users? What was the limit on what kind of powers they had? There were some interesting powers, from the power to heal to the blood magic revealed later, and their magic certainly was the most interesting in what it might be capable of – and we didn’t get to see it.
The worldbuilding certainly took centre stage for me and is the one aspect that I loved about this book, particularly when it was paired with the vivid imagery that Ardalan was able to conjure. He did a fantastic job of not just layering the world, but bringing it to life, and capturing the atmosphere and aesthetic, and conveying it to us, despite how strange it was and how otherworldly so many elements were.
As well as being a masterpiece of worldbuilding, this was very much a character driven story as we followed through five main POVs – four of which were done in the first person, and one in the third person.
‘Somewhere among the tallied days was the first of them all, the day where I felt so withered and my heart was like a distant thrum, my breath so ragged that it stumbled over itself. I couldn’t feel anything.’
Dalila was the character that at the beginning of the book that I had expected to be my favourite, and there was something, captivating or maybe compelling is a better word for her story. Perhaps because it was in the first person, but her voice, her sorrow and self-hatred were almost characters in themselves, and seeing where she had come from, and what had pushed and pulled her onto the path she found herself gave it greater impact – and to see how she chose to fight it, even passively at times.
I liked that the emergence of her power didn’t follow the path that I had half-expected, and instead opened up a whole other part of this world – or more than that – as she is our doorway to witches and the Church of the Faithful. I also liked that even though she had shaped so much of herself around her new life, we got to see the conflict, the questioning, even when she shrank from it, and made choices that cost her dearly – and it’s testament to Ardalan’s skill that the highs and lows of her path splintered out into so many aspects of the story, while remaining so intensely personal.
But, despite that, overall, I think she ended up being one of my least favourite characters.
I think part of the issue I had is that so much of her pain stemmed from the loss of a loved one, but we hadn’t seen enough of that relationship to really feel the impact of that loss. The death was harsh, and I can absolutely see the impact that it would have on anyone witnessing, let alone someone with that level of closeness – but aside from a few brief moments, we didn’t see that closeness. In fact, it felt to me that we saw her interact more with the others in that group, so that connection with the loss wasn’t there. I think another reason for that, is we see Dalila reconnect briefly with others who witnessed that death, and in those moments, it felt like the impact of that loss slipped away. There was another point that really soured the story and the character for me, but I talk about that later as it also relates to Nora. But, I think perhaps what didn’t work most for me, is that despite the moments when she was confronted by what she was, what she could do, that there might be more to her world and her place in it, that it didn’t feel as though she had a journey – a least not until the very end of the book when it burst out of her.
‘I was meant to be great, to do great things. Rise to the top of the ranks, stand over my parents and show them that I didn’t need them, to show the world that it couldn’t hold me down.’
Nora, as with so much of this book left me conflicted. I think most of that stems from events later in the book, that were some of the elements that really didn’t work for me. However, at a fundamental level Nora was the most grounded of the characters, in that she knew who she was and what she wanted – at least on the outside. And I have to say I think some of my favourite overall character work in Eleventh Cycle was how Ardalan dealt with Nora, from her hatred of Akar – that fear of the other, to the fact that so much of her strength and determination and hope stemmed from fear. It was nice to have a ‘strong woman’ that wasn’t perfect, she gave into her temper and got into trouble, she couldn’t control her hatred of the Akar, she would rush into battle to escape the truth of that fear; and she was very much shaped by her past, and her strength wasn’t a cure all to that.
There was a freedom to Nora’s character that wasn’t there with the other characters, and I think that is why the events that happened to her hit so hard. She who reached the furthest and pushed the hardest, was hurt the most. What I did like was that with her first injury, we got to see that devastation play out, stubbornness warring with reality, grief against anger. In fact, this part was probably where I felt the characterisation was most on point for the whole book – and this fed through into when she was sent home, back to the environment and people that had shaped her fear. Again, the weight of that and how it impacted her emotions and behaviour was really well done, and I was caught up in her struggle.
Then it derailed…
It hit the scene where I nearly dnfed, and then it felt like it went off the rails. I understand that this book was about the darkness of the world, and that for what she had to become, she needed to shatter further. My issue comes from how that shattering was done – sexual violence. Especially, because the fracture lines were already there, she was already breaking, and it would have been so easy to shatter her with just pushing from the family, or even the further loss of limbs if that was necessary – because once she came out of the horrifically broken state she was in, it felt like aside from wanting vengeance (more than understandable), it was her body and her ability to move and fight that was the focus and not the rest. So, why have the rest? She could have still had that need for revenge, that desire to reclaim her old ability to move and fight – there was plenty for her to rage against.
‘I could feel my ire bubble, course through my blood; it was a natural response to any goaded akar. It urged me on, tempted me with promises of being unchained and free if my anger could spring to the surface.’
Chroma was possibly my favourite character. There is something universal about the desire to fit in, and his struggles to find his place in Akar society – especially with the split between those in the settlement where he grew up, and those who were gathering as an enemy – were one that resonated. Ardalan does a fantastic job of creating a character torn between worlds and desires, and whose outlet is anger and violence, and captures the essence of one undergoing this while journeying over the cusp into adulthood. As with all the characters within this novel, the world is not kind to Chroma – outside his own internal conflict, he is faced with hatred born of the fact that he is Akar, jealousy, and secrets. I think one of the reasons that Chroma’s story resonated so much, is that the hardships he experienced, and the wounds inflicted on his soul were more contained, and therefore in a way more impactful. War was there on the periphery, an influence but not the hand that wielded the hurt that pushed him over the edge – it was family, and loss, and heritage and the pain of having everything you know crumble beneath him.
I also felt that Ardalan did a fantastic job with the internal conflict Chroma had about being a true, free Akar and how he had been raised. The hesitations, the thoughts that he couldn’t give voice too, the delicate balance points where he could have gone either way; and how we got to see how his bonds with people like Erefiel, and the lessons he had learned growing up had shaped him and his actions. Perhaps of all the main characters, he felt like the one who grew the most, and who was shaped by his experiences rather than broken by them – and it paid off in the fact that he left the biggest impression.
“None of this is me. The grand house, the eyes, the pillar upon which we stand as I am known to be your son first and general second.”
If there was hope in this book, then a fair portion of it was personified by Erefiel. Against the backdrop of this dark world, and the encroaching mist and the threat of the Akar he was beacon – both physically and aesthetically. He was the battlefield hero; he was the one who looked at those around him regardless of their race and position and offered a helping hand. He was a fascinating choice of character for a book that embraces it’s grimdark nature so wholeheartedly, but I think he brought a necessary balance to the tale – he was a bulwark against the darkness, but not one without cracks. He had doubts and fears. He wasn’t infallible or untouchable. A legend built on fact.
It would have been easy to have him just in that role – the saviour, the general – but as with all his characters, Ardalan fleshes him out far more than that. In a similar way to Chroma, it feels like Erefiel is trying to find his own place in the world and like Nora, to break free at least in part of the shadow cast by his parents. With Chroma we got to see a lot of his anger and confusion, with Erefiel it felt like we got to see his heart – the one that wanted to be himself, to hold out that hand to help because he could and because it was right. In so many ways he was the heart of this story, he was the keystone between the three other main POV characters, and the end of his arc in this book really demonstrated that.
“I know not how to instil an idea. I do as I am told to do. Why can’t that be enough?”
Somewhat, ironically, it was the Seed – the third person POV, the one with less connection that I felt the most connection with. Here we got to see a bit more reflection, not necessarily as personal as you might want when connecting with character, but this was a blank slate learning who they were and what their place in their world, and Ardalan really captured that. I would have happily spent a lot more time with the Seed, and I wish that we had been able to see more from their POV particularly later in the book, where their path and the rest of the book converged, because it would have been fantastic to see that being written across the blank canvas that was the Seed, instead we saw fleeting moments and then the culmination – which felt a little lacking, because we hadn’t seen more of that learning curve.
While there was certainly power to these characters, and I appreciated the fact that not all our POV characters were human as it gave us a wider array of views and attitudes towards the world and each other, there was something missing. With the exception of the Seed, the POVs were in first person, and yet it felt as though there was a veil or a vagueness to the characters, which meant that aside from the odd moment there was a disconnect. It felt like we are watching their lives from a distant, like a play with actors conveying the emotions of the character. Perhaps, this was a personal thing, and I just didn’t connect enough with them, but I feel like, particularly with what these characters were enduring, there needed to be more reflection and internal experience. What we get is the emotion – and I can see why they were the aspects of emotion, but it was often shapeless emotion, that while we could see the source and understand it, lacked the impact it might have had with a bit more form and anchoring.
I actually found myself preferring the side-characters, even the ones that were mere fleeting encounters. It felt like they had more colour and vibrancy than the main POV characters for the most part, and there are defiantly some I wanted to spend a lot more time with – Mother Lucia and Maxin are two that immediately come to mind.
Now the harder part…
There are some parts that didn’t sit right with me. Not so much the unrelenting dark, or the wounds inflicted by this world and the worst (and even the best intending) of its denizens, although there were a few places where it felt like fault lines were being inflicted on characters that were already shattered glass. Perhaps, because the narrative was so focused on these four main characters and their emotion, it felt a bit much when the world bit and tore into them, bleeding them, wounding them so deep that who they were bled out, and then did it again, and again. It was just a bit too focused – and it wasn’t until later in the book that we got to see more of that impact really hitting the wider world with the outer settlements, and the people caught up in the chaos there.
But, where it grated on me most was actually in the moments of release – particularly a couple of the moments where Nora and Dalila were trying to reclaim some part of themselves, going from a complicated set of emotions and a situation of tangled threads to self-pleasure with a speed that was almost enough to give me whiplash. And while I can understand strong emotions giving way to other strong emotions, and that as is a message within the latter half of the book that human emotion is messy and complex, it just didn’t ring true for me here. Maybe it was the fact that it happened with both of them, but for myself that detracted very much from the moment and what they were going through, and on both occasions, irritated me enough that I nearly abandoned the book.
And of course as mentioned above what happened to Nora. There was a part in the foreword that notes these events, but says that it was for a purpose, but for me, those particular elements didn’t serve a purpose – as I explained when talking about Nora. And I think it was exacerbated by the fact that it was just the female characters, whether consensual or not, that sexual focus was on the female characters throughout – from Chroma’s mother to the Akar he loved, and then to Dalila and Nora. It’s not something that on its own will turn me off from a book, because it’s an unfortunately undeniable truth that it is part of the world, but it does very much depend on how it is done, and here it fell short.
The writing is another aspect that left me conflicted. There are some truly spectacular descriptions in this book, and Ardalan for the most part does a fantastic job of bringing this world and all it’s myriad peoples and tales to life, and we can see how it is all woven together. And the aesthetic and imagery that has been built up in the design of the book, and in the worldbuilding itself is carried forward in the prose – and yes it does lean towards that awful term of ‘purple prose’ – which usually is something that I love. Give me all the poetic writing, the descriptions that can be more ethereal than anything else, that is trying to touch on something that isn’t necessarily intended to be contained by words. But there are certainly bits that are clunky – with descriptions that feel like they are trying a little too hard and fell too far into the purple and therefore didn’t land, and in fact threw me out of the narrative. There were also quite a few errors, typos and missing words – now normally I don’t notice these and don’t mention them, but I think because of the prose demanding more attention and focus they stood out more than they might have normally; and it certainly distracted from the flow of the story.
The flow was also strange… In some ways, it felt a little like it was two different books. Obviously with a world this large and layered, time needs to be taken to build that up, even with the way that Ardalan has woven those elements throughout the entire book and that necessitates a slower start. But, in Eleventh Cycle it felt like there was a very clear divide from the moment the four main POVs come together with the Seed. In the first part, time felt incredibly ambiguous – there were parts where we were given a compass point as to how much time had passed, but other than that, I never truly had a sense of how much time had and hadn’t passed, and when the skip came it felt too abrupt. That flow and skip in time, I think also added to some of the disconnect I had with the characters, for example we went from Dalila joining the Church to being a Mother with little in between, and I feel like I would have felt more about that journey and the mask she was putting on if we’d seen more about it. Yet at the same time, more time was spent in this part of the book, and it dragged at points.
In comparison the part after the Seed joined the world properly, felt like the accelerator had been pressed flat to the ground and everything happened almost too quickly, perhaps just in comparison to that first part. But, for the weight of what the Seed needed to learn, it didn’t feel like it was matched by what was given on the page. Ironically though, it is in this latter part that the Eleventh Cycle really found it’s feet, like this was the story it was meant to tell – which adds to the impression of meandering in the first part. I think if more of the book had the feel of that latter part it would have worked better, as it would have if some more of that time and detail had been there with the Seed and their interactions with the other POV characters.
Was the author too ambitious?
It’s a chonk of a book and in some ways dense with it, and yet at the same time, this was a tome I consumed within the space of two days (admittedly doing little else between commute and a very late night), although I will admit that part of that was because I was hopeful that I was going to find that spark that would make me love this book as much as others have. It is a book that comes with a steep learning curve, with many moving pieces, and deep lore to bring together to make sense of the world that Ardalan has woven here. It demands attention, little details that come to play further down the line. Connections that could be missed in the blink of an eye. It’s a commitment and an experience to read, and not always a pleasant one, but no, overall, I believe that Ardalan achieved what he set out to create in Eleventh Cycle. From the foreword to the afterword, we are warned that this will not be an easy journey, that the story is one intended to twist and turn, and meander through the all the shades from brightest white to darkest black.
Neither the author nor the book hide away from that fact, which is one of the reasons that I think Eleventh Cycle achieves what it sets out to be. This is no new-born Seed searching for a purpose, this is purpose and will made whole, with the whole gambit of emotion and experience woven into it, and yet still the beginning of a journey as we still have the rest of the series to follow.
Is it a book I would recommend?
Again, my response is complicated, and would certainly come with a caveat – this is dark book, and while it does carry an aspect of hope, it is like a candle flame against the haar rolling in over the sea, and there are true moments of bleakness within these pages. The content warnings included in the foreword should also be noted, because while some of them were not as intense as I might have expected, others were, and this book will not be for everyone. I’m still not one hundred percent sure that it was for me, and yet it has had me thinking about it ever since I turned that last page, and in the moments between reading sessions. Overall, after writing this review and spending days contemplating this book, I still don’t have a clear answer to whether I would recommend this one, on a personal level – possibly not – we were not well matched, despite the fact I adore grimdark, loved the worldbuilding and can see the potential in these pages. But, I do think it will appeal
to anyone who loves Beserk and Dark Souls and knows the darkness of those worlds, to anyone who wants to go on an odyssey of spectacular worldbuilding, who wants to delve into the darkness and see what light and fight can be sparked in the shadows – but that it is certainly one to approach with a certain amount of awareness.
There is part of me that knows I will return to this series, that the same pull that kept me coming back to Eleventh Cycle will call me back; and the title of the next book ‘Forgotten Seed’ gives me hope of solving one of the most intriguing mysteries that was hinted at throughout this book. And I really do love the worldbuilding, and I hope that the potential – and there is so much of it – will really get a chance to shine going forward.
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