Imagine Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus crossed with Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist, filtered through a China Mieville sensibility of industrial magic set firmly in the history and myths of Iceland. That’s what you’re getting in Shadows Of The Short Days, Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson’s wildly inventive, deeply thoughtful debut novel, which he translated himself from its original Icelandic. Set in an alternate universe Reykjavik rife with sorcery, the country of Hrimland is still under the control of the Kalmar crown, who use the natural, mostly magical resources of the area to enrich themselves, their chosen representatives and favored human Hrimlanders, while oppressing other races and disappearing dissidents into a prison known colloquially as the Nine.
Half-human, half huldufolk Garun has always felt like an outsider. Whether growing up in her small huldufolk town or struggling to survive as an adult in Reykjavik, she’s always been treated as an outcast for not being fully one race or another. It’s no surprise then that she gravitates towards a political movement that fights for civil liberties and justice for all, even if she finds her radical viewpoints increasingly at odds with the rest of her fellow protestors’.
Her ex-boyfriend Saemundur has his own set of problems. A gifted magician, he’s grown increasingly frustrated by what he views as the suffocatingly conservative doctrine of the local college of magic. After his professors finally kick him out, his burning desire to prove his former teachers wrong sets in motion a deadly chain of magical events. When Garun comes looking for his help in fomenting revolution, their blind desires to achieve their goals, no matter the cost, could have unthinkable consequences, not only for them but for Hrimland itself.
This is not a book for the faint of heart. The magic can be bloody and grotesque, and is all the more realistic for it. The author is definitely writing a fantasy novel for adults here: the trappings might be out of fairy tales but the details are all too everyday, and nowhere more so than in the incredibly timely depiction of mass protests and government oppression, of young people using drugs to fuel their passions or numb their pains, and of people of all ages slipping through the cracks of an unjust society. Tackling the real costs and struggles of revolution, SotSD accurately describes the pain and division inflicted on and within protest movements, both by bad actors and by the hopelessly naive. Garun is a fascinating protagonist, an increasingly paranoid dissident who loses herself to the struggle, while Saemundur gives up more and more of himself in search of his personal enlightenment. Their parallel tales are impossible to look away from, even as the incredibly rich world-building tempts the reader to imagine all the wondrous things happening off-stage, especially with the magical races who serve as a compelling stand-in for diversity given Iceland’s historically homogenous ethnicity. It’s always heartening to see authors make a deliberate choice to represent more than the default white European in their writings, and especially in an area where one could easily take a pass on discussing racism at all. Inclusion and an unwillingness to sugarcoat human failings, while still extending the grace of empathy to our flawed characters, make this one of the more compelling urban fantasies I’ve ever read.
SotSD is a wonderfully written parable for our times, and while I was a little confused by the ending — but ready to write off my lack of understanding due to not being culturally Icelandic enough to immediately get the references — I was pleased to discover that this is meant to be the first in a series where more will likely be explained. On its own tho, this is still one of those books destined to become a classic, cult or otherwise.
Shadows Of The Short Days by Alexander Dan Vilhjalmsson was published in the US today November 20th, 2020 and is available from all good booksellers, including
Want it now? For the Kindle version, click here.