Shadows of the Short Days by Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson

Sæmundur the Mad, addict and sorcerer, has been expelled from the magical university, Svartiskóli, and can no longer study galdur, an esoteric source of magic. Obsessed with proving his peers wrong, he will stop at nothing to gain absolute power and knowledge, especially of that which is long forbidden.

Garún is an outcast: half-human, half-huldufólk, her very existence is a violation of dimensional boundaries, the ultimate taboo. A militant revolutionary and graffiti artist, recklessly dismissive of the status quo, she will do anything to achieve a just society, including spark a revolution. Even if she has to do it alone.

This is a tale of revolution set in a twisted version of Reykjavik fuelled by industrialised magic and populated by humans, interdimensional exiles, otherworldly creatures, psychoactive graffiti and demonic familiars.

I love it when I read a book that feels genuinely unique. It makes my job a little harder when I have to think of ways to describe it, but the originality more than makes up for that.

Shadows of the Short Days is the English-language version of the Icelandic fantasy book, Hrímland, translated by the author. It pulls heavily from Icelandic/Norse mythology, and weaves that together with an industrial Iceland to create a world with this wonderful, surreal atmosphere. The marketing for this novel compares it to China Mieville’s The City & The City, and honestly that’s about as good a comparison as I can think of. Though, of course, there’s a lot more magic here.

Our main characters are Sæmundur and Garún. The former is an expelled and disgraced student of the local magical university, and the latter is a half-human magical graffiti artist and revolutionary leader. These characters were romantically involved prior to the events of book, but now have a fraught yet cordial relationship with each other. This relationship impacts how they interact, but doesn’t necessarily define them. Both characters may chase their goals with a frightening tenacity, but these goals are very different, even if the paths taken to achieve them overlap at times. Garún wishes to bring an end to the corrupt and racist government, and Sæmundur wishes to gain enough power to prove his critics wrong.

I didn’t find this to be a particularly comfortable read, but it was definitely engaging. I love revolutionary stories, and this one takes a more cynical and perhaps more realistic look at what a revolution actually entails. There’s no romanticised march to parliament to overthrow the government here. Peaceful protests are declared illegal and often end in violence. The leaders of the revolution are not moralistic ideals, but people with flaws and some extremist tendencies, who often make mistakes. It’s not a condemnation of revolutionary movements by any means, but it is a very critical exploration.

There’s a lot more to the world than just this revolution, though it and Sæmundur’s quest for power form the basis of much of the story. There are many non-human races, including the huldufólk (elves), and they each have their own politics and factions. The world is bleak, with a tangible and ever-present sense of impending danger which lends a gravity to those scenes where a character is made to face the consequences of their actions. (Or in Garún’s case, her existence.)

There’s a lot more I could say about Shadows of the Short Days, but really it’s one of those books that’s better experienced first-hand. It’s surreal, it’s spooky, it’s uncomfortable… but it’s sure as hell memorable. There are a lot of Icelandic terms used throughout, but most of these are defined in the glossary at the back of the book (which I really, really wish someone had told me about beforehand), and their meanings can usually be inferred from context.

If you’re looking for something different, or perhaps want to read a Norse fantasy from a perspective you’ve never seen before, then Shadows of the Short Days might be what you’re looking for. I won’t be forgetting about this book any time soon.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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