From Iceland — The Generation Shaping Icelandic Fantasy

The Generation Shaping Icelandic Fantasy

Published April 12, 2021

The Generation Shaping Icelandic Fantasy
Valur Grettisson
Photo by
shutterstock_Artwork/Tithi Luadthong

It’s a brutal truth, but as a whole, most Icelandic writers have two relatively boring characteristics in common. First, they take themselves way too seriously. And second, they are still kind of chasing the glorious shadows of our only Nobel Prize winner Halldór Kiljan Laxness—though they’d never admit it.

Although this is changing, the repercussions of these two characteristics are that most Icelandic writers haven’t really ventured beyond the “serious novel” genre. The anomaly perhaps is crime fiction, which became popular in the late 90s when former journalist Arnaldur Indriðason began tackling the genre after he lost his job. While at first his novels didn’t score particularly high with critics, readers quickly caught on and his works were a cherished relief from the seriousness of Icelandic literature, ending up making Arnaldur the most popular writer in Iceland today.

But the genre that very few writers in Iceland have explored is fantasy, which is borderline dumbfounding when you consider how rich in fantasy stories Icelandic history is. You can find remnants of it in Tolkien’s ‘Lord Of The Rings,’ countless video games, movies and so much more, but not very many Icelandic books. Like Arnaldur, it’s clear we need a trailblazer. That said, there are some candidates, so here is a rundown of our top fantasy writers paving the way for the genre in Iceland.

A metal fantasy

First we have Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson. He’s possibly the most internationally well-known Icelandic fantasy writer, as his books have been successful commercially. Alexander Dan’s debut ‘Shadows of the Short Days’ was translated and published by Gollancz, a widely known and respected publisher in the fantasy genre. The book’s stage is an alternative magical Reykjavík city with wizards and half-elves-half-humans striving for a revolution. It’s a well-thought-out, deep and inventive world, and what more do we really need from a fantasy novel?

Oh yes, and did we mention that Alexander Dan is also a hardcore metal guy who is the frontman and writes the lyrics for the beloved black metal project Carpe Noctem? Well, now we did.

Splatter for kids

Within Iceland though, Hildur Knútsdóttir is probably the most successful and widely-respected fantasy writer. In 2017, she won the Icelandic Book Prize for her young adult novel ‘Vetrarhörkur’ (‘Winter Frost’). The novel told the story of a devastating alien attack on Earth that destroyed our entire civilization, forcing humanity to reckon with their new post-apocalyptic reality.

The main characters are teenage siblings, who live a relatively normal life until the aliens’ attack. So far the book might sound pretty conventional, but there is a twist, as in the second novel in the series, the story quickly turns into a brutal splatter horror story. Therefore, to call it different from other young adult books on the Icelandic market would be an understatement.

The core of Hildur’s works is a brutal criticism of modern people and the numbness in our daily lives. It’s also an exploration of selfishness and how easy it is to forget the importance of not taking others for granted. Hildur is truly a unique writer, and ‘Winter Frost’ is a great start for anyone that wants to enter Icelandic fantasy.

Crime Cthulhu fantasy

Ok, it’s a damn shame that no one has translated Emil Hjörvar Petersen’s fantasy novels, but he’s so great—and potentially if we talk him up enough, he will get translated—that we are going to mention him anyway. Emil is one of the most prolific writers in the fantasy genre and he’s put in the effort to not only promote Icelandic fantasy domestically, but also internationally.

“Elves, trolls, ghosts and, of course, the horrific human beings that, in the end, are always the most cruel creatures of them all.”

Emil’s book, ‘Nornasveimur’ (‘The Swarming Witches’) is a supernatural thriller that’s sort of like if an old Icelandic saga was crossed with H.P. Lovecraft. Emil often writes crime fiction where the detectives have to cross worlds to solve despicable crimes. He’s the only writer in Iceland who focuses primarily on the crime fantasy novel while also featuring your classic Icelandic characters: elves, trolls, ghosts, and, of course, the horrific human beings that in the end are always the most cruel creatures of them all.

The younglings

There are of course more fantasy writers in Iceland, and many more to come, we’re sure. It’s interesting to point out that all of these writers are younger than 40 and considering the high quality of work they are putting out, we’re certain the genre will blow up one day in Iceland. In fact, in our opinion, it’s only a matter of time.

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