Crack open one of these best books on Iceland and get inspired to go there. These twenty five great books set in Iceland will give you 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.
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. So, check out this list, buy a few and get cracking on some great reads.
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Icelandic Murder Mysteries & Thrillers
Odd that that there are so many mystery books set in Iceland considering that the country has very little 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.
Fire and Ice Series, Michael Ridpath
Detective Magnus Jonson has been seconded to the Iceland Police force and he has dragged his past along with him. Where Shadows Lie, is the first in a three book series and 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, Lilja Sigurdardottir
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”.
Dark Iceland Series, 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 Snow Blind 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, Adam Lebor
This spy thriller races along behind Yael Axoulay, who is a covert negotiator for the UN. She is 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.
Officer Gunnhildur Series, 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 dodgey 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 book in the series.
Inspector Erlendur Series, Arnaldur Indridason
Indridason’s 11 book series may be the most commercially successful of all of the mystery books on 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.
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, much to the dismay of her keepers.
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 Kiljian 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. Then, you can explore 21st century Reykjavik with this travel guide to all of the coolest things to do there.
Thomas Jonsson, Best Seller, Gudbergur Bergsson
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).
Speaking of James Joyce…you should also check out this list of great Irish reads that includes not only the classics but fine contemporary works as well.
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”.
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.
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 the gothic and moody tale.
Best Books on Iceland’s 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, eeking 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.
Icelandic Folk Tales
Icelanders are a sturdy and practical people…except for the part where they believe in Elves.
Elves and Hidden People, Alda Sigmundsdottir
Any self-respecting nerd believes in elves. Tolkien’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.
Non-Fiction Books on Iceland
The following non-fiction books on Iceland explore the country’s Viking history, expat culture and why it shares some traits (but not others) with its sister Nordic countries.
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.
Travel Books for Iceland
These travel books on Iceland cover the travel guides along with travelers guidance on navigating the folk tales and understanding the impact of tourism.
Travel Blog Resources
Start your travel planning with these blog posts on Iceland
- Why going to Iceland in the winter is so special.
- Why Iceland is a great solo travel destination.
- Lots of cool (and some kinda weird) things to do in Reykjavik, including some pretty awesome street art.
In addition, here are some Iceland travel guides and travelogues to help you plan.
A Travellers Guide to Icelandic Folk Tales, Jon R. Hjalmarsson
Does this book belong in the folklore section? Or does this book belong on a list of travel books on Iceland? I chose the latter because the book weaves stories about Icelandic mermen, elves, ghosts and wizards with a journey around the landscape. So, suspend your disbelief and take a road trip in Iceland!
The Little Book of Tourists in Iceland, Alda Sigmundsdottir
Tourism is up 20% year over year in Iceland and while that’s good for the economy, it’s also taxing their social structure and environment. Sigmundsdottir takes a look at the reasons for the tourism boom, how it’s impacting Iceland and crazy stories of tourist misbehavior.
Rick Steves, Iceland
I like Rick Steves travel guides, however, I’ve disobeyed him in Madrid, London, Northern Ireland and Edinburgh. That said, his guides are practical, budget friendly and dedicated to pointing you to interesting cultural insights.
Lonely Planet, Iceland
Lonely Planet does a good job of providing an overall snapshot of Iceland with practical tips for staying withing budget and finding out of the way spots.
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I hope that you enjoy these great books set in Iceland. If you have a favorite that isn’t listed here, please comment or let me know on social media and I’d be happy to add it. Happy reading and happy trails.
READ MORE BOOKS!
Start with this list of the very best travel books. It includes great reads about how travel is transformative, offering wacky tales of derring do, epic quests and stories of authentic travel.
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