Size / / /

Shadows of the Short Days coverShadows 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.

Rachel Cordasco has a PhD in literary studies and currently works as a developmental editor. When she's not at her day job or chasing three kids, she's writing reviews and translating Italian speculative fiction. She runs the website, and can be found on Facebook and Twitter.
One comment on “Shadows of the Short Days by Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson”

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Current Issue
19 Oct 2020

We wear the masks long after penguins have been extinguished. By now we are hauntresses, hordes of extinction shuffling along the city streets under the excruciating weathers of this brutal world we’ve inherited. Individually, we are called pinguinos. It’s something to do; the world is depressed and none of us have jobs.
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
In this episode of the Strange Horizons podcast, editor Anaea Lay presents Noah Bogdonoff's “Ask Not What the Penguin Horde Can Do For You.”
I may be eyeless but I can see through the eyes of everyone and everything. My parents put cameras all over the house
By: Aber O. Grand
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
In this episode of the Strange Horizons podcast, editor Ciro Faienza presents Aber O. Grand's “Marbles.”
Fiction submissions will close for November-December 2020. This means that the last window for general fiction submissions in 2020 will be October 26-27. Get your stories ready or hold them until January 2021. Fiction submissions for the Palestinian Special issue will open in November 2020!
Friday: A Tale of Truths by Berit Ellingsen 
Issue 12 Oct 2020
By: Elisabeth R. Moore
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Stephanie Jean
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 5 Oct 2020
By: J.L. Akagi
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Lesley Wheeler
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Lesley Wheeler
Issue 28 Sep 2020
By: Maggie Damken
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 21 Sep 2020
By: Aqdas Aftab
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: David Clink
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 14 Sep 2020
By: Fargo Tbakhi
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Jenny Blackford
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 7 Sep 2020
By: Catherynne M. Valente
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Bethany Powell
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Bethany Powell
Issue 31 Aug 2020
By: R.B. Lemberg
By: Julia Rios
By: Sonya Taaffe
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: R.B. Lemberg
Podcast read by: Julia Rios
Podcast read by: Sonya Taaffe
Issue 24 Aug 2020
By: Leslie J. Anderson
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Leslie J. Anderson
Issue 17 Aug 2020
By: Emma Törzs
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Liz Adair
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 10 Aug 2020
By: Anya Johanna DeNiro
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Laura Cranehill
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Load More
%d bloggers like this: