Review: As the Distant Bells Toll by Aleksandar Žiljak

translated from the Croatian by the author

Wizard’s Tower Press

October 5, 2020

272 pages

grab a copy here or through your local independent bookstore



“A Unicorn and a Warrior Girl”
“The Divine She-Wolf”
“The Nekomata”
“Elsbet and The Book of Dragons”
“The Law of the Sea”
“The Aeolomancer”
“As the Distant Bells Toll”


I first read Aleksandar Žiljak’s work in Kontakt: An Anthology of Croatian SF (2014), also published by Wizard’s Tower Press. His story, “The Dead,” about zombie enslavement that channels first-hand accounts of concentration camps, stood out and left me wanting to read more of his work. So when Cheryl Morgan reached out to me with a review copy of Žiljak’s collection in English, As the Distant Bells Toll, I jumped at the opportunity.

There’s something about Žiljak’s style that is relentlessly endearing, engrossing, real. I know I’m not being very analytical here, but it’s the kind of feeling I get when I read stories by writers who seem care about their characters’ fate and want things to work out well for them, even if things  don’t.

I’m writing about characters here like they’re real people because that’s how Žiljak writes–even when his protagonists are automatons, shapeshifting wolves, wandering angels, and ancient Chinese warrior women who befriend unicorns. No matter how far back in history Žiljak takes us, or where on the planet, we instantly know the kind of world we’ve entered with each story. The blossoming friendship between a young girl in ancient China and the unicorn that she’s being used as bait to catch is described with an elegance and compassion that immediately endeared me to the story. Similarly, the love between the shapeshifting she-wolf Jana and her human husband rings true, especially when he finds himself caught between wanting to protect his wife and letting her go out into the woods to rescue their kidnapped son.

Some of these stories end in a mix of triumph and tragedy: a vampire spirit kills several female ninjas but is finally driven out of their midst (“The Nekomata”); an illustrator is saved from death by the wizard with whom she falls in love (and for whom she sketches real-life dragons) (“Elsbet and The Book of Dragons”); a girl who was mistakenly sent to Heaven instead of Hell is sent back to Earth to prove by one act that she deserves to return to the former (“As the Distant Bells Toll”).

Each story is accompanied by intricate, beautiful illustrations by the author himself, which add an extra dimension to the tales of love, betrayal, transformation, and heroism.

Let’s hope we get more Žiljak in English soon. I’m looking at you, Wizard’s Tower!

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