Let’s face it—would we even be talking about anything even remotely adjacent to “Slavic fantasy” were it not for The Witcher videogames, and everything that came after them?
(No. We wouldn’t be. We’d still be writing it, though.)
But now we’re here, and if I’m that one Slavic person that you know of (which is literally impossible, but let’s keep the idea, for the sake of argument), let me tell you that we haven’t even started the discussion on Slavic fantasy, and I’m gonna try and offer a few possible reasons why.
What qualifies me to talk about Slavic fantasy is that, quite simply, I’m a member of a Slavic nation (Croats) and I luuurve speculative fiction. Which, unfortunately, didn’t help me at all regarding the Witcher thing, because I’m not a gamer (which you might’ve guessed), nor a cishet person and, while I do have an aesthetic appreciation for Henry Cavill (because I am human, and very basic), I’m a tiny bit too gay to still remain thrilled about the show, months after having watched it.
To put it in short—I liked it.
But I like the exposure it brought upon these parts of the collective world’s folklore way more. I like that, with each new book my publishing cottage (called Shtriga, which is a fun fact in a post about, you know, Slavic fantasy) gets out there, we find even more new books by other people under the #slavicfantasy umbrella on social media.
And yet, the Wikipedia article (as of February 2021) predominantly lists Russian writers in the (sub)genre! What happened to the rest of us? Is it because Russia is, by far, the biggest market, or because they’ve started writing speculative fiction on a larger scale a bit earlier than some of us? Is it that the Witcher has not been out there long enough to lead a new movement (even though the game has been out for a while now), or because—oh shit—we speculative fiction writers from smaller nations are so obsessed with the current dominant narrative (American) and setting (Celtic or central European) that we’re only just starting to look back to our heritage?
Or is it—which, in the end, I think might be the reason—the fact that the Wikipedia article hasn’t been updated nearly enough to reflect the whole of the subgenre? Let us take a look at another sources, then, because the rest of Wikipedia, at a glance, isn’t all that better.
The TV Tropes article is, in my not-that-humble opinion, a much better place to start, even though I’d still like to see more non-US and non-Russian stuff in it. I’m hopeless, I know. Let’s just say it’s a variety thing. And yet… there truly aren’t that many titles listed, in total, anyplace.
Which brings us, I believe, to the ugly truth, which is, as usual, the sad truth, too—as well as the simplest one. As a Slavic writer, and a Slavic reader, and a person who shares her life with someone who’s got it pretty hard for Slavic folklore, I believe that the main problem is the language. Because the majority—and that’s a pretty big majority—of Slavic fantasy hasn’t been yet translated into our single common language, one most (but not all!) of the world shares—oh, yes, le olde Anglais.
And lemme tell you, even between languages which share the bulk of a common vocabulary, it’s sometimes a lot easier to resort to an outside common language, because it’s so goddamn faster. I’m already sorry for writing this, but it’s true. (If you’re really interested, apart from our Bosnian, Serbian, Montenegro and Slovenian colleagues, I’m able to talk to older Macedonians—or, to put it closer to the truth, they’re able to talk to me—and older people from other neighbouring areas in general, because they were required to be able to communicate in Serbian, back in the day, so we, uh, still understand each other. Which is so unrelated to the point here that I’m going to stop now.) If you take countries which are further apart—like, say, Croatia and Bulgaria, or Poland, or—pick any Slavic nation, and you’ll probably be right—the languages are waaaay too different for us to relay precise and/or literary information to each other.
And so, even if I wanted to read any other Slavic fantasy or speculative fiction in general, I’d have to resort to books which have either been translated into English (which is, truly, not that common, apart from, say, classics—and I don’t have the stomach for any classics, lately, because I really like my queers and people of the female persuasion alive and happy—and truly ‘notable’ works—to which the same personal limits I’ve stated before apply) or written in English.
Let me share a little about what it takes for a non-Anglo writer who’s never lived outside of their country (in Croatia’s particular case, we have a lot of expats and a few ex-expats—re-pats?—among us) to delve into writing in English. You need to have a supportive family and/or a good enough of a teacher in elementary school to start learning English the easy way. (Of course, if you have none of it, you’re on your own—which is sometimes even better! Note the, uh, good teacher bit.) Later, you need to be able to understand enough English to start reading fiction in English and then do it for a few years. You need to use English, too—if only to talk to your fellow online, or write a blog (like, say, a larping one)—long enough to start catching even those smaller mistakes you’re making in your writing because, hell, you’re a non-native speaker, maybe for the first time in your life (if your first language is the local main language). And then, well, then you need some serious guts. To dare expose the enormity of the things you don’t know about using English to express yourself.
And that, for most people, is a risk too big to bear.
So, finally, I’m not that surprised that, when you google Slavic fantasy, you get the Witcher and Russian literature. Luckily, you also get the awesome article duology by Teo Bileta on Tor.com, this one and that one. If you’re not a Slav, I’d recommend you take a look at those in general, and not just to start reading Slavic fantasy today (though one has to hope). Even if you are, in fact, one of “us” (uhh…) take a peek to see what else there is! In English!
Translated stories and whole collections are a good place to start, because it’s usually easier—and a lot cheaper—to get your story translated into English, than your novel. (I’ll be a little bitch and let you know that there are a few editions of one of Croatian scifi zines available in English, for free, online, here. Knock yourself out.)
To try to wrap this beast up, let us ask a pesky, but necessary question—have I written any Slavic fantasy? And the answer, I’m sorry, is a resolute no. Which is why I’m even more fascinated by people who have, like my partner-in-crime, Antonija. (Technically, it’s Slavic horror, but let us not dwell on that fact for too long.)
Unless you take the whole of the local experience as a ‘Slavic’ thing, I’ve written one historical fantasy (in Croatian) of the Anglo-heritage vein, inspired by decidedly American narratives (in one word: werewolves), and a few titles in a dieselpunk mystery series which does, technically, take place in Croatia (or, umm, the region currently known as Croatia). I guess it is inspired by the Slavic experience, in the notion that it’s directly derived from our WWII history, but… my main inspiration were, still, the brain children of two Brits (Agatha Christie and Phillip Pullman, if you must know).
And I’m okay with that. I’m okay with admiring my fellow Slavic fantasy writers from afar, and through posts like this one. I’m more than excited every time I hear of a new writer, especially people who write in their second (or third) language, who are getting our heritage out there. (I think it’s a—you know—variety thing.)
I’m happy that there are other people writing about it, too, and that there are more coming into the fold. If you want to chat about it, you know where to find me, even if I’ll have to ask Antonija for help with some of the more intricate details of the subgenre.
For the real wrap-up—a tiny article like this one can’t begin to cover the whole of the Slavic fantasy idea, but it was still something which bugged me, and something I’m hoping to keep learning more about. So thanks for sticking around along the way!
Ps. This is the part where I note that my partner jumped in, late into the writing session which produced this article, to offer another simple—and oh-so-painful—truth: one of the probable reasons why it’s easier to find Russian Slavic fantasy online than basically any other (apart from that one Polish writer who really needn’t be named) is that a lot of non-Slavic people think that Slavic equals Russian.
Yes, I’m looking at you, Boris the Blade. Who’s played by a Croat, in case you didn’t know. But you did. Because you also know that Bruce Wayne has a really nice coat.
There’s way more where we come from, and it’s going to be one hell of a ride.
Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash.