Her debut, the fantasy novel, Koparborgin has been nominated to no less than four awards. Today Ragnhildur Hólmgeirsdóttir gives us an introduction to the history of young adult literature on Icelandic YA as well as sharing some of her personal favorites.
YA in Iceland
When asked to do a blog about my three favourite Icelandic YA books for NUBB, I immediately saw some complications. As a literary genre, YA is fairly recent in general and could also be classified as a marketing strategy rather than a unified group of novels. Many authors find the category hindering and don’t think of themselves as YA writers, as author Hildur Knútsdóttir explains in this interview.
I can see the logic in the argument against YA as a category but nonetheless when I was writing my own novel, I did aim for a younger audience and frequently compared my work to other books classified as YA. The reason is simply that as a child and teenager, books meant so much more to me than they do now, and had the capacity to influence me in a way that is no longer possible. As an author I wanted to have the same type of influence on my readers, and I wanted to give them a reading experience similar to my own.
So if YA books are the ones that have had the greatest influence on me, it should be easy for me to name three of my favourite Icelandic ones, right?
Well, no. I was born in 1988 and YA books are definitely a novelty in Iceland. All my direct influences are foreign, and almost exclusively British. Of course I read and loved countless Icelandic children’s books and teenage drama stories, but they are not the type that immediately springs to mind when you say the words “young adult”. Almost all of them were written with a lot of social realism and were often quite nostalgic towards Icelandic history as well. If they weren’t written as nostalgic works, they certainly seemed so by the time I was reading them at the public library, 20, 30 or who knows, 50 years after their original publication. There was very little fantasy or adventure, no glitter and doom, no world-changing dilemmas in those stories.
So when I started writing my own book in 2008, I felt I was doing something ground-breaking. My book would mark the beginning of something new. Then, of course, the writing took several years and meanwhile other authors of my own generation, under similar influences, published their own works. Today the category of children’s and YA books in Iceland is flourishing, the publishing year of 2015 was particularly interesting in the genre, especially if compared to the market in adult books. But I have to admit that I’ve read very little of what’s been published during those last years. I evaded other YA books on purpose while writing my own, especially the Icelandic ones. I didn’t want to end up comparing myself with them and discovering I was either writing something too similar or too different.
Nonetheless, I will deliver as requested, but keep in mind that I’m really no expert!
Galdrastafir og græn augu/ Magic letters and green eyes by Anna Heiða Pálsdóttir, 1997.
This book was one amazing find at the library when I was about 10 or 11. Sveinn, an average 13-year-old from Reykjavík, stumbles upon a magic letter inscribed on a stone in the countrside and is transported back to the year 1713. To survive he has to adapt to the farmers living in the area and gain the favour of the legendary priest and wizard, Eiríkur of Vogsósar, who alone has the power to help him back to his family and friends. Re-reading the book for this post felt a bit funny, Sveinn was no longer the sensible and grown-up character I remembered but rather a silly teenager, who I now realized was not nearly as thrilled to be in 18th century Iceland as I would have been.
This book is sometimes mentioned as the beginning of YA fantasy writing in Iceland, but as a child I did not think of it that way. For me, it was an obvious continuation of the tradition of nostalgic, socially conscious and slightly conservative books I was used to finding at the library.
Hrafnsauga/ Raven’s eye by Kjartan Yngvi Björnsson and Snæbjörn Brynjarsson, 2012.
This is the first book of a series still in process, currently there are three books out. The story takes place in imagined fictional empire and the reader follows three protagonists, the 16-year-olds Sirja, Breki and Ragnar who live at the outskirts of the empire. They are part of a tribe that is an interesting mix of Icelandic and Sami elements. The life in the tribe is idyllic but at the same time repressive, the reader gets the impression that the fate that the village has decreed for the three young protagonists doesn’t do justice to their potential. When the village is suddenly attacked and destroyed by horrible monsters, the teenagers escape alone and unwillingly become pieces in a game that they have no control over. Even if forced to leave against their will, it’s clear that this new course will allow them to see, do and become so much more than the life originally intended for them.
Arftakinn. Skuggasaga / The Inheritor. Shadowtale by Ragnheiður Eyjólfsdóttir, 2015.
Like Hrafnsauga, Arftakinn is the first book in a series and also takes part in a vast imagined land. This land, however, is connected to the human world and that’s where the story begins, with young Saga who has never quite fitted in. Arftakinn uses several themes from Icelandic folklore to create a fantasy world that is both alien and familiar at the same time. Saga has very interesting side characters, a cat who is her spiritual follower and a classmate who is her natural nemesis but also a potential ally. The plot develops quickly at the end of the book and the reader is shown glimpses of a wide-ranging conspiracy against the main character that goes all the way back to the mysterious life of her mother.
Vetrarfrí/ Winterbreak by Hildur Knútsdóttir, 2015.
This is a book about a horrible alien invasion that defeats Iceland in an instant, leaving the main characters, 15-year-old Bergljót and her 10-year-old brother Bragi to fend for themselves in the middle of winter, while the suspense around the nature of the invaders grows. Their family breaks apart, Reykjavík is no longer safe and they must hide in the countryside, relying on the help of strangers whose company they would usually have avoided. Reminiscent of zombie and apocalypse movies, it explores the answers to the question I can’t help but think about sometimes: What if society crumbles and I have to leave my home? Where to go, how to find food, where can you hide, whom can you trust? And even if you manage to survive, what kind of future do you have?
About the author:
Ragnhildur Hólmgeirsdóttir is an Icelandic author born in 1988 in Reykjavik. Hólmgeirsdóttir has a degree in history, her special field is the medieval period. In 2015 Ragnhildur made her debut as an author with her fantasy novel Koparborgin (eng. Copper City). In spring 2016 Koparborgin was announced as one of the nominees to the Nordic Council Children and Young People’s Literature Prize, in a short time this Icelandic debut novel has been nominated to no less than four awards. A sample read of Koparborgin in English is available online.