Iceland is a tiny Nordic island in the North Atlantic Ocean, sparsely populated, with a sun that doesn’t always set. Due to its close proximity to the Arctic circle, daylight in Iceland works differently then in most of the world. From December until January, the island is almost completely shrouded in darkness, as there are only 4-5 hours per day. However, from May to July, the situation reverses. Daylight lasts for 24 hours, and you have a Midnight Sun. Also, Jews are required to wait until Sunday for Shabbat to technically end.
The official language is Icelandic, and most of the people on this sparsely populated island are descendants of Vikings who have kept their lore alive. That means they have lots of good stories to while away the long winter nights and the endless summer days. Draugur are physical ghosts who resent the living. Witches use the magic of Gandreid to use men as mounts for flying, and Seidskratti are malevolent sorcerers. These sorcerers are also currently working for the Kalmar Commonwealth that is occupying the island with a flying fortress and plundering the natural reserves of Seiðmagn to fuel its war efforts. There is a resistance though and Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson tells their story in Shadows of the Short Days.
A Magical Island Under Occupation
“Gangs of Naskarar sat on eaves over dark alleyways, selling drugs. They were adorned with markings of their tribe, all of them warriors with iron claws or beaks. Bright laughter moved through the crowd like an infectious cough and occasionally glasses of bear shattered. Huldufólk and humans hung together in separate groups outside bars and clubs.
The story takes place in an alternate Hrímland, which is home to four intelligent species: the exiled extradimensional huldufólk, the brutal ravenlike náskárar, the aquatic marbendlar, and of course humans. There are also blendingur who are people with both human and huldufólk parents. The Kalmar Commonwealth occupying the island favors humans and actively discriminates against all the rest. Dividing and conquering with fear and magic is a very effective control technique.
There are two types of magic: Seiður and Galdur. Seiður is a type of sorcery that relies on natural Seiðmagn, a sorcerous energy that is scarce throughout the rest of the world, but plentiful on the island. Wild and dangerous, Seiðmagn is the magical equivalent of radiation and protective measures need to be adopted before you can bend these energies to your will. Galdur is more universal and significantly more dangerous. Practitioners of this magic use spoken incantations and complex rigid rituals to tap into the forces that lie outside our reality.
And there are also monsters, undead, magical constructs, nature spirits, and native religions which are actively being suppressed by the occupying Kalmar. Hrimland should have been a tourists dream, except the occupation keeps everything depressing and dangerous.
Two Very Different Quests
The protagonists of our story are Garun and Sæmandur, two very obsessed characters for completely different reasons. Garun is a Blendingur. Her mother is a Huldufólk and her father is an unknown human. She is trapped in the capital, Reykjavik. Unable to leave without the proper papers, or even legitimately move around the city. She is an active member of the resistance, and she is determined to get rid of the occupation no matter who gets hurt in the process. Sæmandur is her ex.
Sæmandur is a prodigy who is obsessed with Galdur, the force that lies outside our world and all worlds. He wants to understand how it works, and he is extremely frustrated with his former teachers who wouldn’t let him experiment with the magic. How else is he supposed to learn? His teachers, rightfully, weren’t willing to take any risk when it comes to possession by transmundane entities – so they expelled him from the university. Sæmandur is determined to get back in, access the knowledge the university is hiding, and truly master Galdur – no matter who he has to hurt.
Both characters will do whatever it takes. They have the drive, the passion, and the obsession. All that remains is to see who they will intentionally and unintentionally hurt in pursuit of their goals.
I Now Want to Visit Iceland
“Sharp geometries jutted out from the red and obscure graffiti, and even though the paint wasn’t dry yet the Seiðmagn already radiated powerfully into the environment.”
This book is one of those “OMG! Give me more!” books. Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson takes the geography, language, culture and legends of Iceland and infuses them into a modern urban fantasy that I just couldn’t get enough of. We have magical psychedelic graffiti that is both used as a form of resistance and for fueling an addiction. Galdur is used to bind noisefiends into headphones and for creating vivid scenes taken out of Lovecraftian nightmares, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The world building in this book is superb. All chapter numbers are written in Icelandic. Each species has its own unique distinct characteristics and culture that all heavily borrow from the native Iceland. Reykjavik, the location where most of the story takes place is thoroughly fleshed out, but we also get to see the rest of the island in all its glory, and the history of the human settlement on the island very closely mirrors the actual Nordic history. It’s a setting in which the book’s characters can flourish and develop, and boy do they do just that.
Garun and Sæmandur are extremists, and the story here is also a story of how extremists are born. As a discriminated half-breed, Garun is obsessed with justice and equality. She feels very sharply the wrongs the Kalmar Commonwealth is inflicting on the island, and on her. She takes those injustices personally, and she will bring them down. She needs to bring them down. Hrimland deserves a government in which all species are treated equally and everyone gets a fair shake. However, even for her there are limits, which unfortunately Sæmandur doesn’t have.
Sæmandur is Garun’s polar opposite who is also her mirror twin. Garun is obsessed with making Hrimland a better place to live. Sæmandur is obsessed with himself. He will stop at nothing to understand Galdur, and throughout the story we see him slowly and dangerously descend into the realms Lovecraft warned about. Whatever sacrifice needs to be paid, he’ll pay it. With the knowledge he’ll eventually gain, he will be able to make everything better.
The actions committed by these characters lead to some truly amazing scenes and actions as we witness time and again what these characters are capable of doing, the tools they wield to accomplish their goals, and the tools wielded by those who oppose them. There are prices that are going to be paid and debts that will be collected. Pretty much everyone is going to get hurt, especially Garun and Sæmandur, and no one will escape this story unscathed.
The plot and pacing of this story are just as good as the other elements. There is just the right mix of exposition, flashbacks and main storyline. At no point in this story did I ever find myself bored or impatient. Instead this was another one of those books that I just didn’t want to put down, except 505 pages meant I had to divide the book into two weekends which were kept too far apart.
A sequel is being planned. I will buy it.
Omer is grandeur in foundation. I’ve already written too much so I will just say there is nothing grander than creating a whole fantasy world using Iceland as the foundation. Nothing so far can compete with what Shadows of the Short Days has accomplished (Apocalypse Now Now is second place in this category).
About The Author
Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson is an Icelandic author who lives in Reykjavik. Shadows of the Short Days is his first novel. He writes in both Icelandic and English, and is the founder and editor of Iceland’s first SFF magazine, furðusögur (Weird Stories). Alexander is also the vocalist and lyricist for Icelandic black metal band Carpe Noctem.