Shadows of the Short Days by Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson

July 5, 2019

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. 

Something a bit different this week, some Icelandic fiction. Shadows of the Short Days, by Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson, is an urban fantasy novel with a distinctly political air. The huldufólk (hidden people) of Icelandic folklore walk among us. These magical beings that live in and around Reykjavik are subjugated for being different and otherworldly. Decades of near slavery has pushed the huldufólk to their limit. Change is in the air, but at what cost?

When we first meet Garún she spends her nights tagging buildings with magical graffiti. Her tags are designed to cause dissent against the occupying forces of the Kalmar Commonwealth. Reykjavik has become a city split down the middle. A powerful minority control everything with an iron fist. Unregulated magic is a crime and is not to be tolerated. Driven by her anger at the establishment, we follow Garún from dissident to revolutionary. She tries to work within the confines of the system but is ignored repeatedly. The Commonwealth are all powerful, keeping the huldufólk brow beaten and down-trodden is in their benefit. Garún and her friends have no choice but to employ direct action. As tension continues to escalate, it is only a matter of time before blood begins to flow.

Elsewhere a disgraced student, Sæmundur, decides the rules regulating the use of magic need to be broken. He sets out to prove that the sorcery employed by humanity is just the tip of the magical iceberg. Ultimate power is available to those who are brave enough to explore it.  There are some truly surreal moments as Sæmundur attempts to understand the seemingly inexplicable nature of magic. He regularly smokes a special moss that increases perception and offers invaluable insight into his quest. There is almost a shamanistic quality to how Sæmundur works, he draws on powers from the light and dark sides of nature. The further he progresses in his studies, the more obsessive he becomes. Knowledge is the only goal, any fallout or unforeseen consequence becomes an irrelevance. The failures that Sæmundur experiences drive him forward to the point where he begins to lose all sense of self. Consorting with demonic forces, researching forbidden texts and copious amount hallucinogenic drugs all take their toll. Sæmundur is changed at a fundamental level, he becomes something unrecognisable to others.

Everything was wrong. Himself most of all. He had been assimilated into the grotesque nightmare world of the mushroom.

All this magical experimentation leads to some moments of suitably gross body horror.  The book’s final chapters are a wildly chaotic hybrid of industrialised magic, Akira-esque evolution* and the Cthulhu mythos. Put it this way, there are a plethora of tentacles and demons.

One word of warning, there is a moment of animal cruelty that is pretty horrific. I saw it coming, and can even appreciate it within the context of the story, but it upset me nonetheless. It did make me want to give the character responsible a serious beating. Thinking about it that, may have been the point.

That single nasty moment aside, I really enjoyed this novel. Ultimately, Shadows of the Short Days is a novel about change and the lengths people will go to achieve it. Garún wants to change the system, break it all down and create something new where everyone is equal. Sæmundur wants to push the limits of magic, to change the very fabric of existence. Both characters exhibit a grim determination that felt palpable. I got caught up in the tension of it all, that sense that these were people fighting for the right to live the way they wanted to live. The blending together of revolutionary politics and magical fantasy creates a gripping narrative with a surreal air that I found hugely entertaining. If you are looking for thought provoking genre fiction then this could well be the book for you.

Shadows of the Short Days is published by Gollancz and is available from 25th July.

My musical recommendation to accompany this book is the soundtrack to Jordskott II by Erik Lewander and Olle Ljugman. It has an atmospheric, slightly eerie tone that suggest a mood that fits the book perfectly.

*Tetsuo’s final transformation remains a thing of nightmares as far as I am concerned.

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