Epic fantasy tends to fall into a bit of a rut – dragons, dwarves, prophecies, royalty. And even urban fantasy, the grungier sub-genre that lives more comfortably on modern streets has its common tropes. So it is important to remember that the fantasy genre grew out of a multitude of roots and different folklores can provide the basis for a range of stories. Following the recent release of the poetic and very Spanish novelisation of Pan’s Labyrinth, we now have the grimdark, Icelandic mythology-based urban fantasy Shadows of the Short Days. Originally written in Icelandic by author Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson, and now translated into English by the author. And it is a wild ride.
Garún is a graffiti artist with a twist. She uses a magical substance called Delýsíð in her graffiti which gives it the capacity to affect emotions. Garún has plenty of emotions of her own. She is a Blendingur, half human and half huldufólk, and so not welcome anywhere. She lives in Reykjavík but is fighting against the authorities, trying to foment revolution. Meanwhile her ex-boyfriend Sæmundur is taking a darker path. Expelled from the university for trying to experiment in the dark mystical art of Galdur he decides to continue his studies regardless of the very real danger of demonic possession or worse.
As is obvious from the previous paragraph there are plenty of concepts, names and new words for a reader to get their head around. There is a glossary at the back of the book, but in some ways it is better for readers to immerse themselves in the language – everything is either explained or comes clear from the context. And the immersion technique heightens the experience of being in this strange, modern magical alternative Reykjavík. Through the plot, Vilhjálmsson manages to seamlessly visit all of the different areas of this city – including the dark mirror city of Rukkovik and the realms of the three legged, aggressive raven-like Náskári and water dwelling Marbendill.
Shadows of the Short Days is intense and extremely dark urban fantasy. The characters, particularly Sæmundur are fairly unlikeable, and Garún literally wraps herself in a rage infused blanket for the last third of the novel leading her to make some questionable choices. And there is plenty of body horror and violence. But it is all of a piece that creates a dark but fascinating world and while it is a little unclear where the story is going, that is more interesting than running on the familiar lines of epic fantasy. The book ends in, if anything, a darker place for its main characters and its world than any earlier point, setting up for a second and final planned volume.