Fiction Reviews

Shadows of the Short Days

(2019) Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson, Gollancz, xvii + 506pp, ISBN978-1-473-22410-0


This is a debut novel by Icelander Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson written in English (i.e. not a translation).  It is a book about rebellion and revolution, set in a fantasy/future Reykjavik and its surroundings, a kind of magic infused post-apocalyptic dystopia where trans-dimensional, soul-sucking invaders have been beaten back and are now clinging on desperately on a remote northern island, spreading misery and causing trouble.

The story shifts between two equally engaging points of view: Garun, who is half human, and her onetime boyfriend Saemundur, expelled from University for upsetting the existing orthodoxy.  Garun’s half human status means she is discriminated against but also that she can perform minor magic, and she uses graffiti infused with magical elements to spread discontent. Saemundir’s expulsion also gives him the status of angry outsider. So through their own separate narratives they begin to unpick what makes their world tick: Garun so she can make the world a safer place and Saemundur so he can prove his theories on magic are right and to master his craft, at the expense of anything that stands in his way.  Inevitably, these two storylines coalesce and the two protagonists are brought into conflict.

There is a big sweep to this book and strong characters. Garun is the one I presume we’re to feel sympathy for – maligned, mistreated and misunderstood, with a brash, punky swagger that makes us admire her whilst sympathising for her and her position. As a ‘Blendigur’ (defined in the sadly essential glossary as ‘a person with human and huddufolk (extra-dimensional exiles) parents’) she’s severely discriminated against and treated with suspicion and contempt, but she’s smart and sassy enough to do something about that. Saemundir on the other hand, is arrogant and careless. But he’s up against religious reactionaries, which makes him initially appealing despite his flaws, just as the young Anakin Skywalker is appealing in Star Wars, and just like Skywalker, the appeal wears off in dramatic fashion.

Large parts of this book are scary, and there are demons aplenty. It’s set around Icelandic midwinter when nights are long and getting longer, just like the dark twists in the story.

This book is not always easy to read and the glossary is really necessary given all the Icelandic names (for people and world-specific concepts) but it’s worth persevering, if your tastes run into chilly, fantasy-laced tales of toxic magic.  Grimdark indeed.

Mark Bilsborough


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