Welcome to the Semi-Final stage of SPFBO 9! As you know, we already cut 24 books from our batch of 30 and announced our semi-finalists. Check out our SPFBO 9 page for more info! In the past few weeks, we posted group reviews of each semi-finalist, and we’ll reveal our finalist on October 18th.
Our 5th SPFBO 9 semi-finalist review is for Eleventh Cycle by Kian N. Ardalan. The order of the reviews within a post will be the following: first is the person who picked the book as a semi-finalist, and then the others in alphabetical order.
A quick reminder about how we are proceeding in the Semi-Finals: our judges had the freedom to opt out of reading any of the books due to personal interest, time restrictions, unforeseen life events, etc. Our aim is to have at least 4 reviews/scores for each semi-finalist.
Both in the Semi-Final and Final stages we’ll have a DNF rule in place: if a judge reads a book (either semi-finalist or finalist if they didn’t opt out beforehand), they have to read at least 25% of it. If they decide to DNF between 25%-50% they’ll have to give a score but can opt out of writing a review, and if they DNF after 50% (or not) then also have to score AND write a review.
For Eleventh Cycle we have 4 reviews and 4 scores for your reading pleasures.
So, without further ado, let’s take a closer look at our 5th semi-finalist!
Table of Contents
|Genre:||Fantasy, Grimdark Fantasy, High Fantasy|
|Date of Publishing:||February 1st, 2023|
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.
CONTENT WARNING (can contain minor spoilers): This book is Grimdark. There is a lot of violence, gore, heavy language. It also deals with very heavy themes like realistic representation of disability, has descriptive sexual content, self-harm, mental illness, rape and suicidal ideation.
I’m not going to lie; when I saw that Eleventh Cycle was in our allocation, I had to have it. Liis also had her sights set on this chonky tome, so a challenge was issued. After an extraordinarily civil and non-fatal fight to the death, it was shepherded into my allocation.
Eleventh Cycle takes place in an extraordinarily dark and unfathomably unique world, a world positively dripping in lore and laden with the most esoteric of mysteries. Imagine a world-building Venn diagram, within one circle, you have mortals going about their daily lives, in another, you have godlike elder beings that would make Barker and Cronenberg proud, and in the overlap, you have places that you don’t want to find yourself and where the baddest, weirdest shit happens.
The focus of Kian N. Ardalan’s first foray into the Mistlands is most definitely his characters and world. There isn’t at this point any grand over-arching plot beyond the birth of the Eleventh Seed who will defeat evil, but instead, the book is pulled onwards through the very personal and intimate struggles of its PoV characters. Our protagonists are a varied bunch of humans and non-humans, all of whom are dealing with some really heavy stuff, as you can likely guess given the trigger warnings found in both the synopsis and author’s foreword. With the exception of the Eleventh Seed, the PoV is first-person, which very quickly and effectively engenders a closeness that emotionally welds your heart to the page. The main characters are incredibly nuanced and personable with the trauma they endure, hitting so much harder because of how real they feel. Credit also has to be given to the author for making all of the side characters interesting and impactful; they feel fully fleshed out, not just hollow players made to move things on.
In terms of voice, Eleventh Cycle is very much on the florid side with vividly descriptive language, which is, in places, ethereally poetic. This style perfectly matches the ambience of the book and does a great job of enhancing the otherworldly feel of the Mistlands.
Given the size of the book, I was amazed at how quickly it flew by. Because of the bond you quickly form with the characters you want to keep reading to find out what happens to them, plus the constant dripping of lore and slow unfurling of the world is such an enthralling seduction it was genuinely difficult to put the book down.
With the positives highlighted, were there any negatives to air? The language and prose aren’t 100% consistent, there are a noticeable number of grammatical issues such as odd sentence structures and frequent repetition, and the prose does, at times, darken into a purple so deep it’s akin to a bruise on the page.
The most divisive aspect of Eleventh Cycle will be the graphic SA scene late in the book. Is it necessary? Is SA ever necessary in a book? It’s a sensitive and deeply personal question; in this instance, I found it excessive and more degrading than needed.
Overall though, and despite the negatives, I enjoyed my time with the Eleventh Cycle and eagerly await book two.
I ended up having mixed-up feelings about Eleventh Cycle and because of that, this review has been the bane of my existence. At one point it was four pages long and nobody wants to read all that. There was just so much to tackle between its characters, and just the overall vast feel of the world itself that squishing my many varied thoughts about it all down to a few paragraphs means this is going to be a jumbled mess. Apologies in advance.
Eleventh Cycles’ world of Minethria is unique – it’s dark and strange, and steeped in history. We begin with a Seed being born to the Elder King at Mt Morniar. An event that occurs only once in every thousand years… and right away you know this story is going to be something different.
If you are a reader who likes in-depth worlds that feel ancient, and massive – this is your dream book.
Its world is brimming with life. There’s a multitude of races. Some are at war with others, and not all of our POVs are even fully human. It’s like a mixed bag of every human-leaning race and fantasy creature of lore or D&D that you could possibly imagine.
There are epigraphs that help with the history lessons, and little tidbits that shape out the world. I am a major fan of the usefulness of epigraphs for taking some of the pain out of info-dumps in the main body of the story. They helped to some degree here, but they didn’t quite take all that world-building pain away, unfortunately.
After a while it seemed like every cool thing the author could think of was included, and the world kept getting bigger, darker, and weirder, all at once.
Storytelling and characters.
I enjoyed all four of the main POVs (not so much the 5th POV, the Seed – who for a while is just rounding out our view of the world and moves into the forefront later).
They each had their own struggles with events – some quite horrific – that changed their lives. This is a grim setting and Ardalan, puts the characters through the ringer. Sometimes knocking them back down almost as soon as they crawl back to their feet. These characters aren’t the type to lay down and die either. Which I liked. I prefer a certain hopeful tone in my grimdark: at the very least a need for them to overcome the obstacles that life has brought. I did find enough of that fight in them, to hold a balance that kept me reading.
I’d like to say, I’m not exactly sure where or why this story went off the rails for me, because I was absorbed in the characters and where they would end up. But I know a big part of my drop in interest had to do with the story shift in the back third.
Until then, I was enamoured with the characters; they had trials, they had growth, and they and the people around them, were fascinating. I wanted to know about their lives.
But in the back third, I found I was losing interest and I don’t want to say this story should have been bigger because… good grief, but maybe more focussed on the characters who are most affected?
Because they seemed to stall out after they reached a certain point of establishment. There was a gap in life events. We went from experiencing events, to events being told to us. So, when key points that had up to this point been somewhat glossed over in the background, were moved forward to trigger the turning points for the characters – they fell a little flat. If that makes sense.
Dalila and Yasmin are a great example – though we meet Yasmin early on and the two interact, their friendship, after it begins, moves almost entirely to the background to us being told they hung out together. Which took some of the punch out of the later events with Dalila, and with it her follow-up choices.
This was an ambitious story and I think it will hit everyone a little differently depending on their tastes. I adored the characters (though I thought we could easily drop a couple) but I found the world-building as cool as it was – overfull, with lots of unneeded details. I had so many notes trying to keep it all straight and I probably referred back to them for only a couple of things, at most, and the rest fell aside under the label of didn’t add much we needed to know, but it was a neat idea.
Eleventh Cycle was Frankenstein’s monster of everything you can think of in fantasy, sewn together into something that somehow mostly works, despite the need for a good strong edit. And maybe the lightning that brings this world alive was that Ardalan’s characters were just so darned fascinating. They kept me turning page after page, curious about them and curious to see how they would all fit together.
—-Mind the spoilers ahead—–
The story takes a pretty brutal turn, especially for the one character. I’ll be as vague here as I possibly can. So, this character fought tooth and nail, to come back from a horrific loss, only to be put back to square one (and then some) just as she is somewhat recovered. But to also have the SA on top of the rest, just felt like it pushed things a bit over the edge. If we are looking for an exploration of the loss of a person’s power (and she was a very strong courageous woman who didn’t need others to fight her battles) then, to me, it seemed she had lost that already. But I’m not the author, so that’s all I have to say about that.
Going to just be straight up and say that I had high expectations for Eleventh Cycle based on the first glowing reviews that rolled in at the start of the year, and unfortunately, I can’t say I agree with the hype 100%.
I got that book on my Kindle on its publishing date, long before I even knew I was going to be involved in SPFBO this year. Eleventh Cycle is one of those obvious ones for me. Dark fantasy like doom metal. Gritty, crawling, and raw. But I guess it is true that the camp is divided on this one. You either love it, or you don’t. I had a long, hard think about why I didn’t love this book. Especially when I should have.
Yes, there is a ton of worldbuilding in Eleventh Cycle. It’s quite impressive. But eventually, it all came down to delivery.
I don’t mind slow-burn books but if we’re doing slow-burn, I want to find an anchor within the story quite quickly. Perhaps it was the multiple POVs that made me feel like I was being pulled into too many directions at once, with too many different bits of information, and not having that anchor to root for made the story lose grip on me. Eleventh Cycle has too much of everything, for me. The focus gets diluted. The purpose and ambitions get too widespread. Personally, I love the focus to remain within narrower boundaries, with only so many dramatic main character arcs at a time. But, perhaps, the ambitious spread of the world and people in it, is what makes this debut a standout for others. A point for the main characters, however, they are all very different from each other and have a very solid and distinct role to play.
There are infodumps in the world of fiction that are sometimes so well masked, you don’t even realize you’ve read pages of filling and ‘should know’. Then there are infodumps that outright panic me. There were a few times in Eleventh Cycle where I found myself thinking, hey, this is lots of info, do I need to remember all this detail for the next 700 pages? Is this going to be super important when things start to shake down? All the Cycles and Seeds and little snippets of history… That’s going to be tough! Then, I tried reaaaallllyyy hard to read that info and it turned into an academic exercise and I think I made it worse, because suddenly, I didn’t focus on the story anymore, or the characters. Instead, I was trying to justify why I had just pretty much tried to memorize 2 pages of something that hadn’t come up for the next 3-4 chapters, all the while these 3-4 chapters were dishing out more info. And, if I do not click with the prose then it feels like a non-Euclidean adventure that I’m afraid I am not equipped to handle. Look, English is not my first language, so maybe take this with a pinch of salt, but I do feel like some editing to smooth down the corners of the story could have helped it flow with a smoother pace and have a more pinpoint focus.
I worry about this sometimes, but I don’t mind violence and graphic scenes in fiction. I don’t get sick to my stomach, I don’t squeeze my eyes shut at the horrors, and I don’t pull faces when something questionable happens on the pages – because it’s fiction. I have a firm line between what is fiction and what is real. A book is an author’s creative freedom. A work of fiction is also something that typically cannot be designed by a committee… WE are not writing a book. The author is. On their own. And they can do whatever the hell they wish in their fictional world, with their fictional characters, because this is how they see the story play out, how they want the story to go. And as readers, we either click or we don’t. WE don’t have to agree with the author’s creative choices. It’s not a requirement when we crack open a book. So, the point being, the elements of violence and scenes of graphic nature were not my issue *as such*… I think what jarred me was the timing of some events. It wasn’t even that I felt discomfort. Discomfort is a valid feeling that stories can make the reader feel. It was more… confusion? Why now? Why like this? And again, I think it was all down to the prose and style of delivery. For example, there are sex scenes that can feel cringey because the characters themselves feel the cringe. But then there are scenes of sexual nature that feel cringey because of how they’re written. For probably the first time ever I felt like some things happened only for the shock factor purpose, to put the grim in grimdark, and that took away from the natural flow of the story for me.
Overall, I think it could have been good. I mean, many readers say it *is* good. Yes, the elements of gritty, crawling, and raw are there. I just wish I could say I enjoyed the prose that delivered those elements, but this time I have to put up my hands in defeat and say, sorry, I’m not quite meeting Eleventh Cycle eye to eye. Lastly, I am glad this book ended up in Paul’s batch, I don’t think I could have dealt with cutting this book in the elimination round because the hype for the book exists and I am but a small voice in the opposite camp.
I’ll be upfront, if it was down to me, I wouldn’t have picked up Eleventh Cycle – mostly because it’s a 780 pages long epic fantasy which is not my jam. And also because there is a lot of hype around it and more times than not, I find myself not liking hyped books. But Paul picked it as our semi-finalist, so I gave it a go. And while I didn’t hate it as much as I expected, I also didn’t enjoy it enough to read further than the 34% mark, which, considering the length of the book, is about a full novel’s worth.
Okay, so, Eleventh Cycle. Up to the point where I read, we had 4 POV characters, plus the Seed who was born right at the beginning of the book. I seriously could have done without that part though. From the get go you know for sure that there is going to be a lot of worldbuilding. There are different races with their conflicts, there is this thing with the Seeds and cycles, there are also supernatural beings that seem to be a mix of different folklores, and also angels for some reason (although they are the biblical kind, not the cute Renaissance versions), etc. It’s a lot to absorb, and it’s easy to get lost in the details, especially in the beginning. And then there were things where I didn’t understand the logic behind – like the age thing. Every new Seed who succeeds (if I remember right) gets to add one month to the year, so people would live longer, and eventually can become super long-lived as they once were. But I’m not sure I understand how it works. A year gets longer, so technically you age slower time-wise, but that doesn’t mean your body also ages slower. I’m not sure biology works that way. It also took me a long time to understand how the cycles and Seeds relate, but finally there was a drop of information somewhere so that helped.
I know that by the 34% mark I only just started scratching the surface of the story, but I just had no sense of where the story was heading. There were hints of Evil, but those were super vague, lacked any kind of tension, and failed to make me care about it much. Which is a problem, since the whole point of a Seed is to fight against the rising evil and bring the start of a new cycle. And we are starting the story with the new Seed’s birth, so you know it’s going to take a while to get there. Even if said Seed develops quickly.
I was curious about the forgotten, how someone becomes one, and why, and I really hope there is an explanation for that later down the line.
So, there is a lot going on with the worldbuilding alone, and it really does feel like Ardalan wanted to cram everything he could think of into this book (and series). But sometimes less is more and probably he took a bigger bite than he could chew. In general, I think that Eleventh Cycle would have benefited from another round or two of editing to bring out the potential it has.
As for the characters, I liked Dalila’s POV the most, and eventually, that kept me reading as far as I did. And while I was curious about her fate, it still wasn’t enough to make me continue. Young as she is, Ardalan deals a hard blow to her right in the beginning, so it’s easy to sympathize with her. The POV character (or rather his chapters) I had the most issue with was Chroma. He is an akar refugee living in a camp near Dalila’s village. He was born there, so all he knows about his ancestry and heritage is what he hears from his mother and the other warriors living with them. He has a shy, kind, peaceful nature, and that’s at odds with this rather testosterone-fueled society.
He is considered a traitor, because he kills an akar who attacked people, and also because he maintains friendships with humans. I liked him as a character and my issue was with the way Ardalan tries to build up his character, mostly through cringey sex scenes. I’m not sure those were necessary. Nor some gorier details in other POV characters’ chapters. I’ve no issues with grimdark content, but you need to know where the lines are. And in some cases, I don’t think they were justified.
All in all, Eleventh Cycle is a rather ambitious debut with a lot of worldbuilding, and those who like sprawling epic fantasies in a grimdark suit probably will find this one to their liking. Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of them.
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