Balance is the heartbeat of this story. The yin and yang-esque relationship between two magical elements, seidur and galdur, plays a central role in the magic system, but it also serves as the backdrop for a plethora of counteracting forces. The Crown and the rebels, the modern and the ancient, human and nonhuman, and Garún and Sæmundur themselves add to a thematically contiguous world. As a result, Short Days feels orderly and orchestrated from the get-go ... The tone of each of the two narrative voices also exhibits this balance ... This sense of symmetry is balanced by how otherwise layered and lived-in this world feels. One of my favorite parts of sci-fi cinema is seeing the grunge of a cantina or the dirty streets of a futuristic town. Every corner of this vision of Reykjavik has a different magical creature, a different alchemical concoction, a new piece of lore to be uncovered. Hrimlandic, which reads like a combination of Old Norse and Gaelic, fills nearly every page of the book, adding to the sense of abundant discovery. Dan Vilhjálmsson includes a rich glossary filled with Hrimlandic terminology, as well as a compendium of magical creatures and a 'Citizen’s Primer' full of advice for pronouncing some of the wonderfully complicated words throughout.
Vilhjálmsson’s creation is a vibrant mix of urban fantasy, New Weird, and Icelandic folklore ... 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 ... 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 ... Confusing moments aside, Vilhjálmsson successfully switches back and forth between Sæmundur and Garún as they embark upon their respective dangerous projects ... 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 ... The last fifty pages of this 473-page novel are deliciously dark and riotously nightmarish ... ilhjálmsson 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.
The novel’s wide-ranging plot, which joins magical fantasy to revolutionary politics, gets challenging at times and the inclusion of Icelandic terminology will require frequent trips to the book’s glossary. But readers who enjoy urban fantasy writers like China Miéville should enjoy this dark saga.