REVIEW: Shadows of the Short Days – Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson

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Author: Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Gollancz

Genre: Fantasy, urban fantasy

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, fighting against an unjust government that refuses to grant people like her basic rights. 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.

I was really, really excited about this book. Back in 2017, while I was interning at Gollancz, I was given a pile of submissions to read through and provide reader reports on. Were there any worth publishing? This book – then titled Hrímland – was already on the radar for Craig, who was at the time an assistant editor at Gollancz and is now smashing it as an editor for Titan Books. It blew me away. I remember the notes I made on my reader report, comparing it to Gaiman with how dark and disorientating it was. I think I probably scribbled “SCANDI-GOTH” in big letters and a bit excitedly, because it held the exact same feeling as the Norse Myths part of the myths and legends book I had as a child. There was always something more organic and earthy about Norse myths that grabbed me as a child, more tangible and body-based than Greek myths. Shadows of the Short Days is Icelandic, but there’s a tone there which it shares with that mythology, and Vilhjálmsson has taken a running leap right into it. I was hooked after the submission, the first 50 pages. I’ve had to wait two years to find out what happened next.

There are so many wonderful threads and layers to this story, but perhaps the most obvious which is portrayed through both Garún and Sæmundur. Garún is a revolutionary, fighting against an oppressive government, fighting to make the world a better place for people like her, and others who are crushed under the weight of an occupying force. Sæmundur is a self-important drug dealer, convinced he knows better than generations of researchers before him as to the best and safest way to research galdur, an ancient and dangerous magic that carries the risk of demonic possession. At the outset, Garún is portrayed as righteous, a freedom fighter, and Sæmundur is an arrogant waster, self-important but ultimately a functionless member of society as he is expelled, dumped, and perceived as a general failure. There’s something slightly black-and-white about their origins, but those lines become delightfully blurred as the story progresses.

Sæmundur’s isolation is shown to amplify his extremist ideals, and you see his radicalisation intimately in his every thought and action. He rationalises things to himself, and as he moves by inches actions which at the start of the novel were written off as unacceptable then become the logical next step. In some ways his journey is the most straightforward, and a perfect example of tragic hubris. The internal narration which follows him is just pitch perfect for showing how he spirals. His thoughts become an echo chamber, reaffirming his beliefs and his resolve even when he wavers. Of the two narratives his is perhaps the bleakest at the outset, as he seems slightly unhinged already from drugs and delusion. The story comes from seeing how far he will go, and how thin his denial can stretch.

For Garún things begin as the story of a rebel, and seem almost hopeful because she is so full of anger and determination. We’re used to reading stories about rebels and freedom fighters, the plucky underdogs who make the world a better place by triumphing over evil. She is battling prejudice, racism, and a controlling State which keeps communities in poverty and controls borders. She’s the hero, in a way. The way she fights against people telling her to accept a little change at a time, or to try the non-violent approach, it’s a rhetoric we hear daily in a lot of politics – in particular when people are told they’re not being polite when they demand respect or fair treatment. So her tale is a creeping one and it’s hard to identify when the shift comes from righteous to too far – if it ever really comes at all. Where Sæmundur is too far right from the start, how much is deemed acceptable for Garún before it becomes too far?

Magic and drugs are treated almost synonymously in this story too, addiction and impact clearly spelled out in the tale. Garún use a magical element called delysið which can be snorted like coke, or mixed into her paints to evoke strong feelings in people around her if used to paint runes and magical symbols – for better or worse results. She becomes addicted to the feelings she evokes in herself, and other people become prey to the runes she paints elsewhere. Sæmundur smokes moss like pot, but also finds it drives him deeper into his galdur, which becomes a more pressing addiction as it infects him. Government-employed magicians are hidden behind masks, but we hear their bodies become burned out by magic use.

This is by turns a political thriller and personal tragedy, this book is dense but precise, full of tragedies big and small (and, as a trigger warning, things don’t go great for the cat). It’s not a quick or easy read, it’s pretty dark and brutal. There’s something very gothic and inevitable about it, and it’s hard to work out what would be a good ending, and as the book wears on it becomes even harder to try and predict. Possibly that’s because I’m something of an optimist, but perhaps it’s because the narrative drives the characters far beyond rational endings and resolutions. It’s such an intense and dark book, but it drags you along and you can’t stop reading.

I feel like my notes on my reader report stood up in light of reading the whole story. It’s a fantastic book, and something very different from other books I’ve read. It does have smacks of Gaiman in how the magic is very bodily, in the same way Rosewater felt like a very physical SF. There’s a style of writing that makes the readers very aware of the physical being of characters, and that can be used so effectively to make you feel involved and uncomfortable at any given moment. Like Rosewater, it’s also a book that is so richly ingrained with a sense of place and culture in its tone, setting, and style. There are plenty of Icelandic words spread throughout the book, but it’s more than that. This is an Icelandic book, in the same way Rosewater is emphatically a Nigerian book. I love how you can really feel the national identities shining through so intensely.

I don’t know if there are going to be more in the series, following other characters or showing the aftermath, but it almost doesn’t matter if there are. It’s a fantastic ending where it is.

Briefly:

  • A dark, rich story, with a very Icelandic flavour. It’s both political and personal, dealing with the macro and the micro at the same time, and it’s riveting and tragic and fantastic.
  • I enjoyed the different types of magic, although I wish there had been slightly more description of the different races, specifically the Huldufólk. Whilst we had a lot of description of the raven-like Náskárar and some of the aquatic Marbendill, the only description we really got of Huldufólk was in the features that Garún shared with them.
  • It’s a complex book, with a lot of characters and unfamiliar words and even letters. You’ll work hard to get to the ending but I think it’s worth it.
  • There are some genuinely bone-chilling moments in this and it’s wonderful. In particular the horrible mushroom which Sæmundur uses will stick in my memory for a while, and it was one thing I retained over two years from reading the submission.

Rating: 5/5 – this is a complex, brutal, and very gothic story which bears the hallmarks of perhaps Lovecraft’s eldritch horrors and descent into madness, but with a clear Icelandic identity.

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