Aleksander Ziljak is one of the foremost voices in Croatian SFF, and I was delighted to have the chance of reading and reviewing one of his short story collections. As the Distant Bells Toll is an anthology of eight short stories, each paired with an intricate illustration by the author himself, with a wonderfully folkloric quality to both. From the dark forests of traditional fairytales to detailed Victorian steampunk cityscapes, the tales straddle a variety of genres and locales, richly realized by the writer’s visual imagination.
Speculative fiction is often populated by characters who are “others,” and we usually deify or vilify those we cannot identify with. Ziljak’s folkloric fantasy stories interrogate these boundaries of otherness, suggesting that by alienating those we cannot understand, we end up revealing our own monstrous selves. A menagerie of mythological creatures, both familiar and unfamiliar, haunt these pages, exploring humanity’s fraught relationship with the uncanny—retelling fables and myths with newer, haunting twists. Originally written in Croatian, these stories (translated into English by Ziljak) read lucidly and vividly, as though recounted by a storyteller to a crowd of eager listeners.
However, at the outset, I must warn readers that most of the tales suffer from the internalized misogyny and objectification of female bodies that is so rampant in stories by male authors. His protagonists are nearly always women who are constrained by patriarchal oppression and the male gaze, yet while violence is often graphically depicted, their trauma and interior mental landscape are not deeply delved into. Their heroism and resilience is understandable and believable, but also a product of male fantasies. To me, as a woman, reading about Ziljak’s female characters negotiating with power structures, emerging victorious, or giving in to the whims of fate, did not feel empowering at all, and the heterosexual romances were rather lackluster.
The opening story, “A Unicorn and a Warrior Girl,” is set in ancient China, where the sinister Emperor questing for immortality enlists the virgin Choo-kheng to tame the elusive unicorn. Although trained in the martial arts by her grandfather, Choo-kheng at first lacks any bodily autonomy and agency. Upon arrival at the imperial court, she is examined by the king’s servants, for she is a valuable asset only as long as her virginity remains intact. Yet her repeated encounters with the unicorn make her question what is right and wrong, and Ziljak invokes different metaphors from the natural world to highlight the toxic web of power politics that Choo-kheng struggles to break free from. The ending is optimistic and morally satisfying, while the little atmospheric details and the many layers in the narrative make this a tale worth revisiting.
The next tale, “The Divine She-Wolf,” introduces the reader to Ziljak’s skill in playing with multiple perspectives within a short tale. In several of his stories, the side characters and the antagonists are as important as the protagonist and are allowed their own space and voice, adding more complexity to his tales. “The Divine She-Wolf” is primarily concerned with a mother’s quest to retrieve her kidnapped son, but it is also a story about a villain’s pursuit of power and a husband’s long-standing loyalties.
Jana, a shape-shifting wolf-woman, asks her husband Yambrek to return her wolf-coat, so that she can transform into her animal form and bring back their son. Yambrek’s dilemma in choosing between his wife and child is well articulated. The conflict between Jana’s werewolf pack, human villagers, and the rival dog-headed raiders explores how communities are built upon similarities and shared interests, and yet are divided by differences that often culminate in violence. Jana, whose ties are to the wolf clan that reared her as well as to the human settlement where she found family, is caught between two worlds, belonging in neither.
At several points while reading this story, I was reminded of selkie myths—when the selkie woman rediscovers her missing sealskin, she can ignore the call of the sea no longer and must leave her mortal family behind. But here, Ziljak invokes a similar trope only to deliciously subvert it: Jana must reclaim her wolf-coat and former identity in a bid to save her human family. Overall, “The Divine She-Wolf” is a fascinating emotional adventure, filled with action and intrigue.
Meanwhile, both “The Nekomata” and “Rumiko” are quite lengthy, featuring Japanese protagonists and thoughtful worldbuilding. Yet, while “The Nekomata” is set in feudal Japan, where a mysterious vampiric cat pursues a secretive group of female ninjas, “Rumiko” deals with the plight of a Japanese girl, lost among strangers in a steampunk rendition of Zagreb. With shifting perspectives and multiple characters, each with their own insecurities and agendas, I found “The Nekomata” to be quite engrossing, and filled with interesting details—an all-women ninja clan that shelters and trains orphan girls, the bonds of love and loyalty that quite inevitably blossom but are not enough to shadow the deep-seated anxieties and alienation of being an outsider, and a looming threat that nearly destabilizes the order alongside the fears of religious persecution—all of which richly intermix in an action-packed Japanese backdrop.
While “The Nekomata” belongs more firmly within the “horror” and “dark fantasy” categories, “Rumiko” (which is probably the longest story in this collection and is divided into chapters like a novella) is more heartwarming and straightforward, where the clockwork technology of the fictional world cleverly foreshadows the surprising twist in the ending, reminding me of some of the themes tackled in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-Up Girl. The romance between the two main characters, Rumiko and Marin, is sweet but feels forced, and although I enjoyed the tale, I kept wishing that there was more to the story, such as a deeper foray into Rumiko’s psyche.
I had similar feelings about “Elsbet and The Book of Dragons,” which includes a love story between a wizard and his talented illustrator/apprentice. The tale starts off on a promising note, and according to the author himself, the lead character Elsbet is based upon Elizabeth Gould, a Victorian artist who illustrated several natural history monographs. Elsbet is extremely talented at her craft, able to draw photo-realistic scenes from observation alone. While traveling with the wizard, she chances upon two dragons, and she is distracted from her sketching when she watches them mate. This acts as a set-up for her latent feelings for the wizard to come to light.
After they are attacked by a group of bandits, she is grievously injured. As the wizard struggles to save Elsbet, we finally learn about his dark past and his failure to bring back his former wife from the dead. The ending doesn’t quite land, and although the story has some excellent ingredients (such as the details about the natural world, including the dragons), it feels quite half-baked: the wizard’s backstory completely shadows Elsbet’s story and doesn’t give any space to address the potential problematic power dynamics between a teacher and his apprentice.
But the only story in the collection that I strongly disliked is “The Law of the Sea,” which has a graphic rape scene. In a confusing plot, the characters in the story are on a ship, menaced by a sea serpent. Don Jorge, one of the passengers, rapes Mercedes, a woman whom he deems to be the “strongest.” He later offers himself and the other people on the ship as bait for the monster, allowing Mercedes a chance to swim away and survive. She ends up on an island, ready to fend for herself and their unborn baby.
I felt that the conclusion was particularly chilling and disturbing. It appears to be a very nihilistic engagement with the Darwinian idea of the “survival of the fittest.” The rapist’s self-sacrifice doesn’t feel heroic at all but a calculated attempt at ensuring that his lineage will continue, while the woman’s trauma is swept away in the sea. The line that really threw me off was the one where Mercedes’s orgasm (after being raped) is described as being “betrayed by her own flesh,” as though, in a subtle way, she is partially responsible for the terrible situation. It was a very difficult read that left me feeling cold and angry at the turn of events.
This thread of male violence is continued in “The Aelomancer,” where a male pirate enslaves women for his own selfish and power-hungry designs. Katka is a woman who can control the winds and cook up storms. She is captured (along with her daughter and a mermaid) and raped so that her skills can be used to destroy the pirate’s enemy fleet, while her daughter’s life also hangs in the balance. Although the villain gets his just desserts at the end of the narrative, it doesn’t feel like a victory for the female characters at all. The backdrop of colonialism and rebellions led by the natives add little to the primary plot. Yet I found the fantastical details in the story to be quite inventive and intriguing and wished I could encounter the female characters in a happier context.
Finally, the concluding tale, “As the Distant Bells Toll,” is a curious gem, meticulously crafted and darkly riveting. A girl who is mistakenly sent to heaven after her death must pass a “test” in order to become an angel. Wandering the cold and snowy streets at Christmastime, she encounters a demon who is out to prey upon innocent souls. By the sickbed of a dying child and her grieving father, the demon tries to tempt the father to condemn his daughter’s soul to hell in exchange for a mortal life, and our protagonist has to make a difficult but crucial choice. There are several unresolved details in the tale, but that only deepens the mystery. Overall, it’s quite a chilling tale for a winter’s night.
There’s a lot to love about Ziljak’s fiction: the wondrous magic, mystery, and worldbuilding; his multiple points-of-view in his short stories and the refreshing way he engages with certain fantasy tropes. But it is disheartening that his female characters rarely have any agency or choice and suffer incredible violence at the hands of powerful men. Ziljak’s approach to writing about their hardships feels very external and unempathetic. Overcoming adversity doesn’t always make women stronger; it often leaves them more vulnerable, traumatized, and weak, bearing scars that never truly heal, and stony resilience isn’t always a valid trauma response.
Furthermore, I found it a bit strange how sex is often used as a convenient plot device to hint at intimacy and love, and depicted as a very defining feature of human existence and connection, erasing all the other ways in which humans can express emotional intimacy, romantic affection and even platonic love for each other. Love stories between two people need not necessarily feature sex or focus on physical attraction in order for them to be real and valid, and women need not be sexually attractive or adhere to conventional beauty standards in order to find fulfilling relationships. Barring “Nekomata,” I found the patriarchal cis-heteronormative standards prevalent in the other stories to be tiring.
Nevertheless, most of the stories in the collection are worth reading and debating. The accompanying illustrations are lovely, and the Afterword gives a small glimpse into Ziljak’s writing process, his keen interest in histories, myths and other cultures (which are often the driving force in his tales) as well as discussing the politics of his speculative fiction. With a mix of dark fantasy and horror, As the Distant Bells Toll is particularly recommended for short story enthusiasts and lovers of folklore, but with a trigger warning for graphic depictions of violence upon female bodies.