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's hard to overstate my love for Dark Souls – playing through that game for the first time is one of my core memories. Internalizing the lessons that game was trying to teach me, I really think that made me a better person. It turns out, I'm just a huge fan of Berserk – both the aesthetics (which Dark Souls takes heavy inspiration from) as well as the character archetype of the protagonist, Guts. The Struggler. In Dark Souls, the Nameless Hollow. In Eleventh Cycle...damn near everyone.
Hearing that this book was Dark Souls-inspired (not to mention that cover) sold me on this immediately, and I was really excited for its release. And oh lord if this is not the most grimdark book I've ever read. Like I said, every POV character in this book is struggling, in their own way. Not only physically, struggling to survive. They've all got these deep psychological scars they're battling.
Dalila's childhood friend is shockingly turned to pulp in front of her, scarring her while she grapples with forbidden magic and is confined to life as a sort of nun. Chroma has deep-seated identity problems as he's caught between cultures – human and akar – and doesn't feel like he belongs to either. Nora is a capable leader and fighter but held back by the misogynistic society.
Each of these characters is vividly realized, and Kian holds nothing back when unleashing the challenges they must struggle against. Action scenes are brutal. Heroes die. There's an air of nihilism in this world where people vanish from existence and memory seemingly at random. The characters certainly feel like fate is tilted against them.
But it's all in service of something core to the story. The idea that a character is forged and defined by the depths of the struggles they overcome. And in that way, this book definitely runs parallel to Dark Souls. I think the author set out to write the kind of book where we viscerally experience the extreme depths along with these characters and fully understand the psychological toll their struggle takes, so we feel that much more satisfied when we witness them prevail.
The book is certainly a success on that front. Characters come first and foremost in this story, and we're planted so deeply inside their heads the detail is sometimes overwhelming. It's a nearly 800 page book – it's got to be filled with something. There are some epic moments and action set pieces, but they're fairly sparse. Between them, we spent a lot of time with characters reflecting on and trying to come to terms with their unfortunate situation.
Much of that is handled deftly, and for readers with more patience than me, I can see them absolutely loving the time dedicated to understanding the characters' emotional state. For me, the pace dragged near the middle where it felt like the plot was maybe spread too thin.
There was also a character written in an entirely different style – the Eleventh Seed. His journey takes place in a disconnected part of Minethria (I'll get to the setting and worldbuilding shortly) among godlike beings called Elders. These chapters, of which there are fewer than other characters' POVs, didn't work for me as well as the rest of the story.
The Eleventh Seed is written to be this otherworldly character on whose shoulders the fate of the world rests. The setting of the Seed's story, Mount Morniar, is similarly ethereal and mysterious. I enjoyed the way even time and space seemed to behave differently here, and the Elders themselves are beyond mortal imagining. My problem lied in the writing style itself. The whole book uses fairly stylized high-fantasy prose (which normally isn't my favorite, but here it's another homage to Dark Souls so I'll allow it), but the Seed's chapters turn that style up to eleven.
I get the idea behind these ancient beings speaking with lots of thee's and thou's, cometh'ing and witnesseth'ing. I just find this kind of dialogue is better used sparingly, otherwise it begins to lose impact. It's nothing that made those chapters unreadable, just a stylistic choice that didn't work out for me.
I'll wrap up here with the setting, all the details of which I really enjoyed and was particularly poised to appreciate through the lens of Dark Souls-inspired. First, the land of Minethria is surrounded by an impenetrable fog. Love it. Immediately summons that Demon's Souls nostalgia. From the book title itself, we know the world's history is cyclical, reminding me of how the Age of Fire is part of a cycle in Dark Souls. Many of the little details are delivered through epigrams at the front of the chapters – a similar flavor to FromSoft's games worldbuilding through item descriptions.
I realize I could go on and on about the similarities, but I'll control myself. What's certain is that in its themes and setting, Eleventh Cycle draws clear inspiration from Dark Soul and Berserk yet infuses them with characters that feel fresh in that sort of world. Characters facing absolute horrors and sometimes making frustrating decisions, but who feel fully realized and alive on the page.