Full disclosure: this post started as ‘fiction set in the Balkans’, but then I realized I don’t have enough time for the research needed to do the topic justice, so you get just Croatia instead. For now. Yay.
Also, weirdly enough, this post accidentally coincided with a post I happened to contribute to, on sci-fi and fantasy set in Croatia, available here—in Croatian only. Sorry.
Where is Croatia, anyway?
What you need to do is find Italy on the map. (Venice is your best bet because of the northern position, but anything north of Rome would do.) Then you let your finger go a little to the right. You cross the sea… and that’s where we’re at! They say that our greater geographical region, the Balkans, is a peninsula, but you wouldn’t feel it, living here. (If you’re looking for me, specifically, you don’t even need to travel far—I’m a few dozen miles from the border with Italy.) We’re that funny little cross- (or dragon-) shaped country with the longest coastline. (We took most of the islands, too. I mean, our ancestors did—back then around the 7th century. Don’t @ me.)
Why would anyone even read fiction set in Croatia?
Even if you’re not into slavic fantasy (or folk horror), it might be just that you’re looking for something… different. (I’m in the mood for big words, today, yup.) We’ve all read heaps of fiction set in, say, London, or Podunk, US, right? (I still read a lot of it, monthly, and I love it.) Sometimes one just needs to shake things up a little, though—and one thing I feel that the Balkan region as a whole is almost created for is two of my favourite genres: historical (fantasy) fiction and fantasy.
Regarding the historical side of things…
For starters, we’ve had so many wars. There have been so many kingdoms, empires, borders and military stuff here. (Yup, a lot of trauma, too—and quite a bit of it rather recent. You’ve been warned.) If you’re up to some historical fun in Croatia, all you need to do is pick a point of entry—basically any decade in the past, since we’ve had serious shit happening around here all the time—and feel your way around from there.
For me, it was 1873, the year when the railway line from Budapest got connected to the sea, right here, in my hometown of Rijeka (Izazov krvi). Afterwards, it was the 1940s (Johnny’s Girls), which is tough, because, depending on the week you’re looking into, you might have either Croatia, Yugoslavia, Italy, Germany and, on a memorable occasion, the British here. (Oh wait, they weren’t really here in the 20th century—unlike earlier; during WWII, they just used to pass us by to drop a few exploding gifts.)
A friend writes fiction revolving around 1616, though—during the wars between Austria and Venice—and I’m just starting to learn how much I have no idea about…
As with the fantasy side, just…
I wouldn’t even know where to start. Even though the Slavs are not the only ones who have left our mark in the region, we’re the ones I know the most about. The Slavic pantheon, even though it hasn’t been nearly as well documented as many other religions, was fun. (But you don’t have to take my word for it—I’m beyond biased, since my given name Vesna is literally the Slavic goddess of spring season. Yay!) My partner in crime Antonija chose to focus on the scary parts of the culture (like nightmares), but one of the things I see a lot of potential in are the tattoos, but that’s a story for another day.
Oh, and we’ve had not one, but two non-latinic alphabets to boast with in the area! One of them is not in use anymore, but it looks pleasantly fantasyesque (the glagoljica or the glagolitic script), and the other one is still the dominant script in other places outside Croatia, and didn’t even originate here (the ćirilica or the cyrillic alphabet). Talk about secret (or fantasy) material!
How to pick literature from Croatia?
(Dammit, why do I do this to myself??) Okay, so there’s two types of literature in these parts, as far as I can tell—the government-funded one and the commercial one. (Brace yourselves, I already sense a rant on the horizon, like a storm. I love storms, even though they break my heart as a recently converted dog-roomate.)
As far as the government-funded publishing goes, it’s mostly ‘literature’. What I actually mean is literary fiction. Mainstream. Whatever you want to call it. Up until a few years ago, in Croatia—which is one of the reasons a lot of younger Croatians still loathe the sole idea of picking up a Croatian author—it mostly meant heavy, depressing novels about the war and/or child molestation. (I’m going to regret this sentence once in the future, aren’t I?) Luckily, a lot of really good authors of the non-sadistic kind also managed to get their works published with different traditional houses with public funding—and some speculative fiction writers among them!
Regarding authors I might recommend, it’s harder than you think, especially if we’re talking (as I most often am) about stuff available in English. (There are a lot more mainstream titles available—which I cannot recommend, since I haven’t read them and have no plans to.) One of my favourite Croatian writers of all time, the late and splendid Milena Benini, had some stuff published in English. From more recent things, there’s Aleksandar Žiljak with the collection As the Distant Bells Toll, recently out. As for the rest of us, we’re only just starting with publishing stuff in English, so… come back here in around a year or so? (Or check the selection available here, in my own, tiny publishing cottage—we’re working on adding new authors by the month!).
As things usually go, so did this post start as one thing, and end up something else altogether. (I have to admit that, at the time I’m writing this, my brain is mostly Gideon-fried. But I can’t talk about her here, because—although there are Croatian stories set in space—there are no Croatians on the Ninth… even though I see some resemblance, religion-wise.)
Frankly, I’m hoping to revisit the subject sometime in 2022, and I’m rooting for a lot new titles to list in that (hopeful) future post—and even more new subgenres!
If you’re looking for more book recs, find me on instagram, where I share more book love and cat pictures. Most of the time.