Shadows of the Short Days is a novel about language. From muttered incantations that summon demons to newspaper articles calling for revolution and even the glossary of Icelandic terms in the back of the novel, Vilhjálmsson’s creation is a vibrant mix of urban fantasy, New Weird, and Icelandic folklore. Translated from the Icelandic by Vilhjálmsson himself, Shadows offers us a vision of an alternate Iceland (which the author calls “Hrímland”) in which rapid industrialization, magic, and political intrigue have created a rift in the social fabric. The ruling class holds an uneasy grip on the common people, the human population despises the huldufólk (“extradimensional exiles” residing in Hrímland), and those who are of both human and huldufólk heritage are barely tolerated. From the beginning of the story, we sense the energy and urgency of a revolutionary sentiment that will ultimately erupt in what can only be called a scene of cosmic horror.
Shadows centers on two main characters: Sæmundur, a sorcerer (“galdramaður”) who has been expelled from the university for his rebellious ways; and Garún, part-human and part-huldufólk, who once dated Sæmundur and now organizes protests and vandalizes property in order to bring down the oppressive regime. While Sæmundur is human, he has the ability to go far beyond his fellow sorcerers in pursuit of ever-more esoteric magic; Garún, though, has a natural telepathic ability that she uses only sparingly. Her goal is to achieve equality and acceptance for non-humans, while Sæmundur is only guided by his own desires and ego. When we meet them, they have already broken up, but their reunion to bring down the Crown is potent precisely because of their previous connection and respective iron wills.
It takes seventy-five pages (unfortunately) for us to learn that the huldufólk are not despised just because they are different, but because their race used to use dimensional portals to lure people across realities in order to suck out their memories. Rising to unfathomable heights of decadence and extravagance, the huldufólk race was rendered homeless and helpless when their own dimension collapsed—whether because of “thaumaturgical wars, ecological catastrophes, [or] divine punishment” is unclear (p. 75). Now, those who fled into the world of Hrímland must live outside of the capital’s walls or sneak into Reykjavík with false papers. And this brings me to a question that the novel never answers: how can humans determine who is from another dimension? Do huldufólk have yellow eyes? Do they shimmer? An answer here would have helped us understand exactly how Garún has to navigate her world.
Confusing moments aside, Vilhjálmsson successfully switches back and forth between Sæmundur and Garún as they embark upon their respective dangerous projects: Sæmundur wants to become the most powerful sorcerer in the history of Hrímland and Garún wants to bring down the government. In one of the novel’s most horrific and brilliantly written scenes, Sæmundur worms his way into his old university and takes over not one but two minds, in order to get his hands on a secret document that holds incredible power. Scenes like this don’t occur enough in Shadows; indeed, if the university scene and the cosmic-horror scene near the end of the book were multiplied and spread throughout the text, I’d be tempted to compare Shadows to China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station (2000). And that, my friends, is high praise indeed.
Much of the story follows Sæmundur as he summons demons and harnesses ever-more dangerous powers, and tracks Garún in her quest to rally her fellow non-humans to show up to protests and assassinate powerful government leaders. Throughout it all, Garún keeps a cloth soaked in “delýsið” (a “sorcerous narcotic”) up against her skin, in order to fuel her resentment and rage. Vilhjálmsson successfully conveys Garún’s ever-present anger until it seems like she will be consumed by it. It is Sæmundur, though, who is literally consumed (from the inside out) by his obsession with sorcery.
Despite their bitter breakup, Sæmundur and Garún partner up for one last attempt to utterly destroy the powers that be. While Sæmundur is tasked with using his grasp of magic to destroy the floating citadel that protects the ruling class from the “rabble,” Garún and her non-human allies plot to murder the king and force the human population to reject the oppression that they have passively allowed to exist. What nobody realizes, though, is that Sæmundur has been possessed by demons, and his attack on the citadel releases into Hrímland hungry creatures that could have come straight out of a Lovecraft story. The last fifty pages of this 473-page novel are deliciously dark and riotously nightmarish.
Apparently, Shadows is part of a series; I would read the heck out of a second book set in this world. Vilhjálmsson virtuosically weaves together Icelandic folklore and fantasy/cosmic horror in order to create a unique reading experience that fuels the Anglophone world’s growing appreciation of international speculative fiction. Like fellow Icelandic speculative fiction authors Sjón and Andri Snaer Magnason, Vilhjálmsson offers us a fascinating window onto another literary tradition and tantalizes us with its evolution into the twenty-first century.