Being in a relationship is tough, even without the intrusion of powerful magics and summoned demons. Giving all that you have for another person, even one hellbent on magical experimentation, takes a lot of effort. And when it's over, you just hope you can keep going despite the scars. In the magical alternate universe of Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson's Shadows of the Short Days, it's the scars of the past that matter most.
In Hrimland, the wild energies of the beyond are closer to the surface than other places. Here, sorcery is commonplace, demons can be brought forth through incantations and all manner of magical creatures interact with humans. Garún and Sæmundur, a woman and man attuned to this magical energy who are former lovers, try to find their way in Dan Vilhjálmsson's alternate vision of Reykjavík. When Garún finds herself in the center of a revolution to make Hrimland independent, she commits to fighting for freedom. But Sæmundur, consumed by a desire to delve more deeply into demonic conjuring than anyone ever has, may be too far down a path to darkness to be saved.
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. Garún and Sæmundur read very differently in the close-third perspective Dan Vilhjálmsson employs for both characters. Where Garún frequently lets her righteous anger steer both her voice and her actions, Sæmundur's brooding obsession is the polar opposite. His meddling with sometimes horrific magic feels feverish and reckless, which is perfect because we know Garún feels exactly that way about him much of the time.
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.
Dan Vilhjálmsson had me considering a concept I had not anticipated before starting this book: the personal price of revolution. The pain inflicted on those seeking change and the pain simply incurred by the effort of protest and agitation are central components of Garún and Sæmundur's experience. It seems a fitting meditation for today's world, when the seeking of change is both desperate and, yes, painful. If Shadows of the Short Days is any guide, it's the pain that makes the struggle worth fighting for.