A strikingly original Icelandic debut set in a strangely familiar alternate Reykjavik where wild and industrialised magic meet.
Perfect for fans of contemporary fantasy in the style of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians or China Mieville’s The City & The City
Sæmundur the Mad, addict and sorcerer, has been expelled from the magical university, Svartiskóli, and can no longer study galdur, an esoteric source of magic. Obsessed with proving his peers wrong, he will stop at nothing to gain absolute power and knowledge, especially of that which is long forbidden.
Garún is an outcast: half-human, half-huldufólk, her very existence is a violation of dimensional boundaries, the ultimate taboo. A militant revolutionary and graffiti artist, recklessly dismissive of the status quo, she will do anything to achieve a just society, including spark a revolution. Even if she has to do it alone.
This is a tale of revolution set in a twisted version of Reykjavik fuelled by industrialised magic and populated by humans, interdimensional exiles, otherworldly creatures, psychoactive graffiti and demonic familiars.
Read the first chapter:
One of the most disturbing variants of Hrímlandic galdur, the tilberi is a vile creature of darkness. This servant will do its master’s bidding, without soul or conscience to question its purpose.
Garún removed her mask and stepped away from the wet graffiti to see clearly the whole of the hex sigil she’d painted. It was difficult breathing through the filters on the leather mask and it felt good to taste the fresh air. It was dark, the only light coming from the pale moon that sat low in the sky. She relied on insight and feeling when she painted, so the dark didn’t bother her. She didn’t need to see to know if the graffiti was good or when it was ready. She simply felt it, but it was a raw feeling. She wanted to be sure, so she slipped the goggles over her eyes in order to see the sorcerous seiðmagn bleeding from the paint.
Sharp geometries jutted out unexpectedly from the red and obscure graffiti, and even though the paint wasn’t dry yet the seiðmagn already radiated powerfully into the environment. Exhausted from the work, Garún felt dried up after using so much delýsíð paint in such a short time. While she painted, the emotions expressed within her art were amplified by the delýsíð in the paint and cast back to her in a vicious psychedelic cycle: she was the snake that fed on itself. Now, it was complete. Garún turned down the volume of the electronic music booming in her ears and focused on letting the painting speak to her.
The graffiti was in a good location atop the store Krambúðin and with luck it would be weeks until it was discovered. All the while it would continue to bleed seiðmagn into the environment, where it would infiltrate the subconscious of those nearby. It would slowly infect their minds and sow the seeds of discord. If left undisturbed, the painting would become as a death mask over the building and its neighbourhood.
Krambúðin was a store owned by Sigurður Thorvaldsen, a merchant who ran several enterprises in the greater Reykjavík area. The one below Garún’s feet had become one of the most popular colonial stores in the city since Sigurður had moved to Reykjavík and set up shop almost the same day as the occupa- tion of the Crown began. Not for the soldiers, but for all the people from the countryside flooding to the city to work for the army. The Crown needed a large working force, especially to build the forts in Viðey and the barracks on Seltjarnarnes. Sigurður had pushed those out who threatened his business, threatening, blackmailing and maiming – but, above all, profit- ing. By the time occupation became colonisation and the forts of the colonial masters were built, Sigurður Thorvaldsen had become a wealthy man and Reykjavík a fully grown city.
The graffiti Garún had sprayed on the roof was an anti- prosperity hex. It was intended to drive away the establishment’s elite customers who prized Krambúðin’s imported luxury prod- ucts. Exotic spices, delicate fabrics, handmade soaps, candies and perfumes were only a small fraction of the merchandise available. Those who did not subconsciously avoid the store would become victims of the hex. Pushy customers would argue with the staff, who in turn would be unhelpful and patronising. With luck the influence would spread over the whole street as the graffiti fed on the people’s negative emotions and spewed them back out. She hoped that it would be able to remain unharassed for longer than her other work, which had all been found within a few days.
She took the spray cans and the painting mask and stuffed them into her backpack along with the goggles. Before climbing down from the roof she double-checked that she’d left no empty cans behind. She slid down the fire-escape ladder in the back and turned up the volume again. It was calm and slow, the bass steady and comforting, telling her that nobody was around, nobody was watching. She ran silently through empty yards, vaulted over the fences in her path. The beat became faster the closer she got to the Hverfisgata Road and the stressed rhythm hinted that the police might not be far down the street. She weaved through alleys and backyards alongside Hverfisgata’s busy road. The evening traffic had barely started to trickle downtown. Sudden breaks and booming basslines told her if someone was about to cross her path or about to look out of their window, and she reacted instinctively, ducking into cover and waiting for the threat to pass. She could never be absolutely sure that she had not been seen, and often it was hard to read the music, but after endless practice it had become almost second nature, a part of her natural reflex. She let go and let the music speak to her subconscious.
The closer she got to Hlemmur the more uneasy the music grew. Patrol automobiles were lined up in front of the police station, which was fused with the central station like a tumour grown outside a body. The beat was thick and murky, the music absolutely deafening. She turned down the volume so it was barely audible, pulled her hoodie up and tried not to think about what would happen if she was stopped for a random search.
The central station was home for those who had nowhere else to go. Hobos, junkies, a few blendingar. She made sure not to glance towards them as she felt them notice her walking past. As if they resented her for not sitting with them in the gutter. Policemen stood by the ticket booth and gates, docile but formidable. She tried to keep a low profile, but without it being suspicious. Just as would be expected from a blendingur like her. She took the train to Starholt. Most working people had got home by now and the nightlife didn’t pick up until after midnight, so the train was relatively empty. The city lights took on a blurred halo in the grimy windows.
No one greeted her when she came home. She missed Mæja. What was she thinking, leaving the cat with Sæmundur? He could barely take care of himself, let alone a cat. She was unsure what her intention had been, exactly. She’d wanted him to feel guilt or remorse, or anything at all, there at the end. But he had been simply too numb and now her little cat was probably starved to death underneath worm-eaten manuscripts and dirty socks. One more thing she tried not to think about.
Her studio flat was a bedroom, kitchen, working area and living room simultaneously. The sink was filled with paintbrushes and squeezed paint tubes were found on almost every surface. Half-completed paintings were scattered around in stacks lean- ing against the walls. The air smelled of paint, oil, acrylics and spray mixed in with a faint, sour reek of delýsíð. It was probably good that she was rid of Mæja. The cat would have been long dead from all the toxic chemicals in the air.
Garún took off her large headphones and removed the audioskull from the backpack. Sæmundur had summoned the noisefiend himself and bound it into the skull when she’d started to tag small, powerful delýsíð staves here and there. Wires stuck out of the bare headphones, an old operator’s headset she had converted. She had always meant to make a casing from wood or brass, but had never got around to it. The headphones were plugged into the forehead of the audioskull. The skull had a blue shade to it, covered in runes and esoteric symbols coloured a dark red. It was both illegal and dangerous to summon demons, but Sæmundur never cared about risks. She’d got a used portable transistor radio cheap and had been listening to it on the go, carrying it around in her backpack. That’s what had given him the idea. Transmundane beings were incredibly dangerous even when bound in bone, and Garún had absolutely lost it when he gave her the skull. Still, she had used it.
She took off the black clothes and emptied her backpack. She hid the clothes, along with the backpack and audioskull, under a loose board in the closet. Inside there was a hidden compart- ment where she put the nearly empty delýsíð spray cans. She was practically out, and she needed more. She’d gone tagging a bit too frequently these last weeks, excited for the upcoming protest they had planned. She would have to get more. The bright and unnatural colours had stained her fingers. She turned on the shower and washed her hands with strong and coarse soap before stepping in. The water smelled faintly of sulphur, a familiar and soothing feeling.
After the shower she dried off with a towel and wrapped it around her head to dry her shoulder-length hair. She stirred a raw egg into skyr and read a book while she ate. The book had come free from a nearby café; many of the coffee houses in Starholt had various kinds of free shops and trade markets. Many of the local residents were artists and it aided them in their never-ending pursuit of inspiration and materials. Almost a century had passed since the book was written, long before the occupation by the Crown. The novel was about a huldukona who wanted to become a poet, but her poems were rejected by the Hrímlanders because of who she was. Because of what she was. All her life was one long struggle. The book was a handmade reprint some decades old. It was singed and burned and many pages had been ripped out of it. There still remained some readable parts and Garún devoured them. She’d never found a novel about huldufólk before.
When she finished eating she wrapped the towel around herself, sat out on the balcony and rolled a cigarette. Just a bit too tight, so she had to work her lungs to inhale the livid smoke. Winter had begun smothering autumn and the evening dark was sharp and deep. The apartment buildings surrounded a playground where a few children played in an old wooden play castle that had once been multicoloured, but the paint had peeled off long ago. No one was monitoring them. Late as it was, this was a common sight. She looked over to the other balconies. Clean laundry hung out to dry on taut clothes lines everywhere, among the junk that artists and collectors had gathered: old fishing nets, rusted iron and driftwood, sheets of corrugated iron and other garbage that was a gleaming treasure in some eyes.
Garún threw the butt over the balcony and went inside. She had to get more delýsíð spray paint. Viður would hook her up. She put on a pair of old jeans and a plain black top, grabbed a moss green coat on the way out. She took her time walking to the central area of Starholt, the epicentre where the artistic types and other ideological outcasts, self-declared or not, met each night with the common goal of gossip, flattery, drink and dope in various degrees. As she got closer to the heart of it all, the neighbourhood came to life. Massive cement towers gave way to lower, friendlier houses. Electric lamps with stained glass lit up the streets, twisted modern sculptures that were a welcome change from the Crown’s uniform standard issue lamps every- where else in the city.
Gangs of náskárar sat on eaves over dark alleyways, selling drugs. They were adorned with markings of their tribe, all of them warriors with iron claws or beaks. Bright laughter moved through the crowd like an infectious cough and occasionally glasses of beer shattered. Huldufólk and humans hung together in separate groups outside bars and clubs.
The huldufólk’s attitude towards her was reserved when she walked past them, all of them reflexively reaching out to see who was there. Garún barely noticed, having grown used to shutting it out long ago. Not that humans considered her an equal either – on the contrary – but some huldufólk had a vicious way of upholding what they considered the old ways, and she served as an offensive reminder to them of how far they had fallen.
She shook off these thoughts and lit another cigarette to clear her head. Those strangers didn’t matter. She had found her own people. And above all, she had herself.
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