Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Of Slavs, Rivers and the Supernatural

Recently I read two books published in Croatia that I quite enjoyed and am happy to be able to recommend here, because they were in fact released in English.

The first is a short story collection, Slavic Supernatural. As the title would indicate, all of the stories are inspired by the myths, fairy tales or legends of the various Slav peoples.

(The figure on the cover is Morana, often erroneously considered the Slavic death goddess, although she’s a more complicated figure, as she personifies/symbolizes both death and rebirth or rejuvenation, like the changing seasons, in nature.)

In most cases, this means that either the pre-Christian Slavic pagan gods and/or mythical creatures appear in the stories, sometimes as main characters, while in a few their presence and the supernatural/magical aspect itself are more muted (mainly to create some kind of eerie atmosphere).

The book was in fact released only a few months ago, and its formal presentation was held at Sferakon, Croatia’s main annual SF, fantasy, gaming, etc. convention, which I attended…

From left to right: editor Vesna Kurilić, Miha Trochael (from Prague, the only non-local contributor who attended), Srebrenka Peregrin, Petra Valković, Antonio Filipović, Ivana Geček and editor Antonija Mežnarić

…and so got my book signed by all of those who appeared. The cover artist and designer, Antonio Filipović, even added a little doodle of a totem representing the Slav thunder god Perun:

There’s eleven stories in all, and as in any collection, the quality varies, but I found most of them solidly enjoyable and a few  quite good. My favourites are:

“Traveling Spring” by Lidiana Bunda, about an itinerant (probably) Ukrainian family that’s set about 20 years in the future and seems to be a contemplation of refugee life and climate change.

“Where the Birch Trees Sing” by Greg Gajek, which is set in pre-Christian Poland and very sensitively deals with two teenage girls who fall in love with each other and make the ill-advised decision to run away together.

And “The Gentleman Hat” by Ivana Geček (who’s also done some comics work), a very well-structured horror story set in the rural area north of Zagreb in the modern day and dealing with a rusalka (water spirit). Geček, by the way, has also done some comics work locally.

A sample of her work from a Croatian comics anthology book published last year

The second book is an urban fantasy novel, A Town Called River by Igor Rendić.

It’s about a guy named Paul who returns to the city of his birth, Rijeka (on Croatia’s northern coast, its largest port and third largest city), after his grandmother Lena dies. He hasn’t been back since he was little boy, and once there, he finds that he has inherited more than Lena’s downtown apartment. Lena was, in fact, a krsnica (a sort of shaman or healer, but depending on the folk tale, also a shapeshifter) and the city’s protector from supernatural perils. Paul – like it or not – learns that he has inherited her powers – so he’s now a krsnik – and some of the loose ends of her life. As he begins to contend with the fact that magic is real and his possible role in this world he never knew existed, he’s assisted by an old childhood friend, Katrina, who has low-level supernatural abilities herself (she can see and talk to ghosts) and her two friends – both of whom are witches (the good, well, mostly good kind).

The title of the book, by the way, is a reference to the fact that Rijeka literally means ‘river.’

The river itself, pictured above, is called Rječina, which means ‘big river’ – although it’s in fact pretty small and unremarkable…

Both books were published by Shtriga Books (‘shtriga’ or rather štriga, is the word for witch in the Croatian dialect spoken on the northern Adriatic coast). Although there’s Amazon links above, if you’re really interested in these books, I’d suggest visiting their website, www.shtriga.com, as they list quite a few more books there, most also in English and all available as e-books. Rendić also has his own site, where you can find more information on this novel and his other writing projects.

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