2020’s Shadows of the Short Days is the English-language translation of Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson’s 2014 Icelandic fantasy Hrímland.
Hrímland (Iceland) has been occupied by the Kalmar Commonwealth. The inhabitants of Reykjavík chafe under a brutal police state. Political dissidents vanish into the Nine, never to be seen by their friends and family again.
Dissident Garún was driven into political activism because she is Blendingur, half human and half … not.
Garún is half huldufólk. The fólk are extra-dimensional beings who once used humans as toys and food. Their homeland was destroyed; they are no longer feared. Their half-blood offspring are paying for the sins of their parents.
Garún is determined to see the rise of a just, egalitarian society in Reyjavik. Even though as Blendingur she has no rights and thus is at great risk should the authorities notice her, she works tirelessly to undermine Kalmar’s rule. The means available to her — magically enhanced graffiti and networking with other activists — are limited and unlikely to bring reforms, but they are enough to ensure her an unpleasant death should she get arrested.
Kalmar’s appointed representative, Count Trampe, has no fear that he will be toppled. But he has ignored two factors: first, that there are limits to oppression beyond which even the comfortable middle-class will begin to mildly object and second, Garún has an ex-boyfriend — a fact which turns out to be far more important.
Sæmundur, the ex-boyfriend, sees himself as a cruelly unappreciated genius. His former professors, far from encouraging his visionary efforts to delve more deeply into the esoteric secrets of galdur, called him mad. They insisted his work was dangerous heresy. Also, there was the matter of the illicit drug deals. But that was a mere bagatelle; surely the true cause of his expulsion was small-minded jealousy.
The former student and occasional drug dealer sets out to acquire the forbidden text he requires to carry out his research. True, this requires more homicide than he envisioned. Putting what he learned into action demands the sacrifice of a beloved pet. Never mind! Once he succeeds, nobody will call him Sæmundur the Mad again.
Sæmundur the Mad was unreliable before he got elbow deep into galdur. Contact with phenomena beyond human ken has only exacerbated his quirks. Nevertheless, Count Trampe’s contingency plans never envisioned someone like Sæmundur the Mad. With Sæmundur’s help, Garún and her allies can transform the city.
With a little luck, there might even be survivors.
Animal harm warning: the cat dies horribly. In fact, quite a number of people die horribly, often thanks to Sæmundur’s endless efforts to master arcane secrets. I’m just telling you that because readers seem to mind animal deaths more than human ones.
This is a bleak secondary-world fantasy, one in which the ruling classes have made armed rebellion impossible while also stopping any incremental reform. So far, the main danger to the city’s rulers is each other, not the revolutionary rabble. So far …
Adding to the bleakness is the fact that one of the two protagonists is an intensely unpleasant person. It would be nice to say Sæmundur is the man the city needs, but nobody needs Sæmundur. In fact, everyone would be better off without him. There are good reasons Garún dumped him and excellent reasons his advisors thought his research ill-considered and well worth discouraging.
Still, as long as one does not need a scintilla of hope and as long as one can derive entertainment from watching things go from bad to much worse, this book has a lot to offer readers. It’s written well enough, and while some of the characters are not endearing, they are at least believable.