Explore Iceland from your armchair with one of these best books on Iceland. These 25 great books set in Iceland includes moody murder mysteries, folk tales, Viking quests, quirky characters and a thorough education on Icelandic culture.
When it’s cold and dark during the Icelandic winters, what else is there to do but tell stories and read books? As a result, Iceland has a very strong literary culture. It began in the 13th century with the writing of the Icelandic Sagas (more on them below). Iceland has its own Nobel Prize winner (he’s down below too) and Reykjavik is recognized as a UNESCO City of Literature.
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Every Christmas, there is a veritable flood, or “jólabókaflóð“, of books released into Iceland so that the Icelanders can keep up their tradition of giving books for Christmas. It’s no wonder that there are so many books on Iceland.
In fact, even though we are only officially calling out 25 books, if you read the full back-catalog of these authors, it would add up to over 100 books set in Iceland. So, get ready to load up your TBR list.
7 Icelandic Murder Mysteries & Thrillers
Odd that that there are so many mystery books set in Iceland considering that the country has very little violent crime. They rarely have a murder and they currently incarcerate only about 150 of their 300,000 residents. But that doesn’t stop Icelandic authors from drawing on their isolated location and moody landscapes to produce some of the best Nordic noir.
Where Shadows Lie (Magnus Iceland Mystery #1, Michael Ridpath
Detective Magnus Jonson gets seconded to the Iceland Police force and he drags his past along with him. Where Shadows Lie, is the first in a three book series and in it, Jonson investigates a murder that is surrounded by rumors of a lost Icelandic Saga.
Other books in the series tackle contemporary issues like the credit crunch, volcanic eruptions, and global hacking.
Snare (Reykjavik Noir #1), Lilja Sigurdardóttir
Single mother Sonia gets stuck in a cat and mouse game when she resorts to smuggling cocaine in order to to provide for her son. She tries to get out of the game and is subsequently beaten up by her supplier and investigated by a customs officer. Reviewed as an “extraordinary thriller” and moody, dark example of “Scandi-noir”.
Snowblind (Dark Iceland #1), Ragnar Jonasson
This mystery series introduces Ari Thor, a rookie cop on his first posting, and away from his home in Reykjavik. The series starts with Snowblind where a young women is found bleeding and unconscious in the snow, thrusting Ari into an investigation of the community that he scarcely knows. The books feature Iceland’s moody weather as a primary character.
The Reykjavik Assignment (Yael Azoulay #3), Adam Lebor
This spy thriller races along behind Yael Axoulay, who is a covert negotiator for the UN. She’s dodging an enemy from a lobbying firm, and investigating a human trafficking ring and related terror attacks in advance of a major summit in Reykjavik between the US and Iran.
Frozen Assets (Officer Gunnhildur #1), Quentin Bates
Officer Gunnhildur has recently been promoted to the Serious Crime Unit in Reykjavik and she is immediately plunged into the murder cases that involve a dodgy fitness guru, bank corruption, and murder with a side of blackmail. Gunnhildur is a delightfully no-nonsense character who is just trying to navigate the political landscape so that she can get the job done. Frozen Assets is the first in a 3-book series.
Jar City (Inspector Erlendur #1), Arnaldur Indridason
Indridason’s 11 book series may be the most commercially successful of all of the mystery books set in Iceland. The series begins with Jar City and heavily features Iceland’s insular culture with psychological drama and grim secrets. You can also check out the author’s new Flovent and Thorsen series of thriller books set in Reykjavik.
I Remember You, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
Philip Roughton, Translator
This dark thriller is great for Steven King fans and it’s a quintessential ghost story.
In it, a trio of friends have purchased a dilapidated seaside home with the intent to fix it up as a summer rental. It’s located in an abandoned fishing village, but the friends soon find that they aren’t alone. The story also weaves in Frehy, whose son has gone missing, disturbing school vandalism and a dead elderly women with strange markings on her skin.
The author manages to pull it all together with a chilling atmosphere and a strong dose of mystery.
11 Novels Set in Iceland
These literary novels help to capture the culture of Iceland by featuring quirky characters, longings and the landscape.
The Fish Can Sing, Halldor Laxness
Laxness is Iceland’s most preeminent author and has written some of the best books about Iceland. His literary career produced sixty books including novels, short stories, poetry and plays. He was awarded the Nobel for literature in 1955 and is one of the main reasons why Reykjavik has attained City of Literature status.
You should explore his full canon but I’m recommending The Fish Can Sing as a great place to start. The book exposes the heart of Reykjavik as it follows the orphaned Alfgrimur through his childhood. He is cared for by an eccentric elderly couple and a motley collection of their lodgers. He has a budding musical talent and he is obsessed with the mysterious opera singer Gardar Holm. But Holm isn’t who he appears to be and the boy has to adjust as the truth emerges.
The Fish Can Sing is also a great primer on early 20th century Reykjavik. The story takes place just as Iceland’s capital was transitioning from a cow town to a proper city.
Burial Rites, Hannah Kent
Although they seldom have real murders in Iceland, Burial Rites is a fictionalized account of a true murder story from 1829. The main character Agnes is charged with a brutal murder and she is put on house arrest deep in the Icelandic countryside to wait out the winter until her trial. Her keepers aren’t very welcoming, at least initially…
The book tells Agnes’ backstory and also presents a touching portrait of acceptance and friendship.
Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller, Guðberger Bergsson
Lytton Smith, Translator
This book is either a satirical send-up and/or a harsh cultural criticism of Iceland wrapped in a Joycean style. The title character is a cranky, addled old man penning his memoir in an effort to set Icelandic society right (from his subversive point of view).
This is an off-the-radar pick for folks who like offbeat books.
The Woman at 1000 Degrees, Hallgrímur Helgason
Brian FitzGibbon, Translator
“Herra Bjornsson is an old, feisty, foul-mouthed woman who has had a huge life and who’s story is pretty amazing. Until it wasn’t. “
This review pretty much sums up the book, except for the 1000 degrees part. You see, Herra is suffering from emphysema and is waiting out her impending death in a converted garage. She’s ready to take matters into her own hands, while clutching a live grenade capable of cremating her at 1000 degrees.
But before she does that, she’s going to tell you about her life, her childhood during WWII and her roller coaster of a life.
She’s delivers it all with a crass, dark sense of humor and some tough love.
Butterflies in November, Audur Ava Olafsdottir
This is a road trip story featuring two unlikely companions; the narrator who has just been dumped by her boyfriend, and her friend’s deaf-mute son who has just been dumped on the narrator. They win a lotto jackpot and take off on a zany journey that includes cucumber farms, hitchhikers and an Estonian choir.
The Boston Globe called it “quirky and enchanting”.
Victoria Cribb, Translator
LGBTQ stories are getting more ink these days. But it’s still rare to find a book featuring a queer character in a historical context. But Sjón has done just that with his character Máni. Máni is living in Reykjavik in 1918, during a time when the city was very homogeneous and isolated from the rest of the world.
And then the movies come to town and Máni falls in love with the silent films as a form of escapism from his life on the hustle.
Like the silent movies, the book’s prose has a dreamy quality which one reviewer called, “A fable, A metaphor, a parable, a very fevered dream?”
If you like this book, then you can dig deeper into Sjón’s archives.
Fish Have No Feet, Jón Kalman Stefánsson
Philip Roughton, Translator
After leaving his wife and son, and running away to Copenhagen, Ari finds himself back in Keflavik at the behest of his dying father. The book is a nostalgic journey into Ari’s family history.
“…how is it possible to make it through life relatively undamaged when so much wears out-when passions fade, kisses cool, and so little goes in the direction we choose?”
A Fist or a Heart, Kristín Eiríksdóttir
Larissa Kyzer, Translator
This book is an insightful psychological study of two lonely and eccentric individuals. Elín is a 70 year old maker of props and prosthetics for theatrical and television productions. Ellen is a sensitive playwright and the illegitimate daughter of a famous writer. They try to connect, but their painful histories and Elín’s diminishing memory make for a poignant relationship.
Quake, Auður Jónsdóttir
Meg Matich, Translator
This is a rather somber and philosophical novel about a woman, Saga, the single parent of a three year old who’s dealing with a recurrence of epilepsy.
After an episode on the streets of Reykjavik, she regains consciousness to find her son missing, along with much of her memory. Her son is found, but the missing memories create huge gaps in both her day-to-day life and her identity. The story follows her as she attempts to piece things together again.
The Sealwoman’s Gift, Sally Magnusson
This novel is a brilliant reimagining of true events that occurred in 1627. Pirates raided the Icelandic coastline, taking some 400 people into slavery. An island pastor, his wife Asta, and their children were those taken and sold into slavery in Algiers. Not much is known about happened to the women and children and so Magnusson’s tale covers their stories.
While not set entirely in Iceland, this is a very Icelandic book nonetheless. In it the Icelandic sagas bring great comfort to Asta and others as she tells them the stories. This helps her keep Icelandic culture alive during her enslavement.
The Glass Woman, Caroline Lea
It was tough being a women in Iceland in 1686. So Rósa does what many women do and consents to an arranged marriage in the remote and insular village of Stykkishólmur. But the villagers mistrust both Rósa and her husband in this gothic and moody tale.
7 Books on Iceland’s Culture & Viking History
Yet another mark of Iceland’s great literary culture is their catalog of Viking Sagas. The Sagas began as oral stories but they were set to paper in the 1300’s. They are notable for being one of the earliest forms of non-fiction prose.
The Sagas of Icelanders, Anon
This book is a 782 page door stop so if you need an entry-point, start with the Saga of Egil. His family settled Iceland, eking out a living in the harsh landscape. He was a marauder Viking of the most heroic and psychopathic sort and he had a very unforgiving nature. He harbored a huge beef with the King of Norway and he took every opportunity to aggravate the king by murdering, plundering and enslaving anyone in his path. It makes for a ripping good yarn.
Another classic in the series is Njal’s Saga which tells the story of a fifty-year blood feud with a family saga set against the coming of Christianity. For some reason, this saga is not included in the compendium so you’ll need to acquire it separately.
The Poetic Edda, Anon
If you want to better understand early pagan myths and beliefs, then check out the Poetic Edda. This 13th century manuscript has preserved most of what we know about the gods and heroes of pre-Christian Scandinavians.
You can also find a fictionalized retelling of the Poetic Edda in Tolkein’s Sigurd & Gudrun. There are also several fantasy series that follow bloodthirsty journeyman Vikings and while not set in Iceland (or not entirely in Iceland), they do invoke the tone of the Sagas of Iceland. Check out the Swords of Good Men (Valhalla Saga) by Snorri Kristjansson and God of Vengeance (Rise of Sigurd series) by Giles Kristian.
The Little Book of Elves and Hidden People, Alda Sigmundsdóttir
Any self-respecting nerd believes in elves. Tolkien’s elves, Rowling’s elves, Eoin Colfer’s middle school elves and Kevin Hearne’s hunky Iron Druid’s nemesis elves to name but a few.
So of course, there is a book with a journalistic take on Iceland’s quirky insistence on the presence of elves. In addition to reading the above book, if you are super keen on elves and are also visiting Iceland, then please consider going to Elf School. It’s a real thing.
Viking Age Iceland, Jesse L. Byock
Byock’s books uses archaeology and anthropology to present a historical study of the Vikings that can stand as a companion piece for reading the Sagas.
Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland, Sarah Moss
Sarah Moss’ memoir describes her dream to live in Iceland and her journey when she takes a teaching position at the University of Iceland. She arrived during the volcanic explosion of Eyjafjallajokull and the 2008 economic implosion of Iceland’s economy. The book covers expat life and Iceland’s national character, including their quirky attachment to elves. A good read if you are obsessed with Iceland.
The Almost Nearly Perfect People, Michael Booth
Booth is a serious journalist, but he goes about this examination of Nordic culture with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. He disassembles the myth of the smiling happy Scandinavian and reassembles the pieces into a very insightful examination of the various Nordic countries, including Iceland.
Even if you don’t want to read the whole book, you should read the section on Iceland before traveling there. It will give you a baseline for understanding the country.
A Travellers Guide to Icelandic Folk Tales, Jon R. Hjalmarsson
This is a great primer if you are hoping to travel to Iceland. The book weaves together 60 stories about Icelandic mermen, elves, ghosts and wizards with a journey around the landscape.
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More Armchair Travel
If you like armchair travel and books in translation, boy have we got you covered. You can start with our compendium of books set in global destinations. Or get location-specific with our books set in Colombia, Cuba, Spain, Sri Lanka, Jordan, Australia, Scotland, Ireland and Paris.
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