Up until now, if you’ve ever heard of THE SETTLERS OF CATAN, you probably were thinking about the board game invented by Klaus Teuber. It’s a very popular board game, to the point that it was eventually turned into a novel written by Rebecca Gable. This novelization of THE SETTLERS OF CATAN was originally published in Germany in 2003; the updated, 2011 version has been translated first by Lee Chadeayne, then again by Ingrid S. Lansford. Note that the entirety of this novel is based upon the board game, but the characters within it are Gable’s own invention.
It is 850 AD, and we start out in the fictional village of Elasund, which is located somewhere in Northern Europe. Elasund has just been raided; most of its women were carried off, most of its livestock and other foodstuffs have been taken, and a great deal of Elasund has been put to the torch. But it’s late autumn; the people of Elasund, though they have ships, cannot leave because it’s too late in the year to do so. That’s why most of them decide to leave in the spring, providing they survive the harsh winter to come.
Our main heroes are the friends and foster brothers Candamir and Osmund. Candamir is a carpenter, while Osmund is a farmer; both are in their late teens at the start of THE SETTLERS OF CATAN. Candamir has a foreign slave called Austin as his name is otherwise unpronounceable; Austin is a Roman Catholic priest and healer, but not everyone likes having him around due to his religious beliefs. Both Candamir and Osmund are under the thumb of the richest man in the village, Olaf, who is a sadistic creep bent on tormenting anyone under his thumb, including his own family members; that Osmund is some sort of cousin to Olaf doesn’t really help matters.
Anyway, the villagers barely survive the winter; once it’s safe to leave, almost all of them do, even though their destination is the mythical Catan. Most people haven’t a clue where Catan is; it’s viewed almost as “the land of milk and honey,” because life is supposed to be so much easier there. It also is said to be a favorite spot of Odin’s, to the point that Odin has made it very difficult for mortal men to find it; the only way, supposedly, is to wait for the world’s worst storm to appear — then hope that your ships are stout enough to survive it long enough to finally find the island.
Fortunately for our settlers, they do just that; unfortunately for Candamir, though, his ship is one of those that breaks up before it gets into the island’s harbor and virtually everything he owns is destroyed. This means that he’s starting out his new adventure on Catan behind the eight ball; others, including Osmund, are much better off because everything they owned is still intact. Candamir survives because of his carpentry skills, which end up being in great demand among the settlers.
Along the way, he grows attracted to Siglind, who had once been a Queen but renounced that in order to go along with the settlers to Catan; Siglind is a proto-feminist, and believes that men and women should be equal. She works hard, and Candamir respects this; unfortunately for him, Osmund is one of the rivals for her affection. But Osmund, unlike Candamir, is not able to be anything other than what he is — a pagan man who believes he should be able to sleep with whomever he likes — which is why Siglind rejects Osmund out of hand, and everyone else, too.
Still, Siglind likes Candamir, and that’s more than she’s willing to give anyone else. So he believes he has a chance with her. But as she’s one of Austin’s first converts to Christianity, and she’s open about it, this creates some problems for Candamir.
So what we have here in THE SETTLERS OF CATAN (the novel) is this: a coming of age story for Candamir and Osmund and an excellent historical novel. It deals with the Vikings (who never called themselves that), pagan lore and ritual, early Christianity, the Althing, a free assembly where all the men (and a very few women) go to judge their biggest problem (Gable just calls it “the Thing”), and much, much more. Gable capitalizes on the clash of cultures, religions, and the fact that these two young men must come of age during some rather difficult circumstances; more to the point, she shows just how difficult things could be with regards to religion even when Christianity wasn’t yet forcibly converting people, as Osmund eventually weds the pagan priestess while Candamir has every reason in the world to embrace Christianity, or at least be tolerant of it, due to his friendship with Austin (who is eventually manumitted) and his hopeful romance with Siglind.
There’s a great deal to like about THE SETTLERS OF CATAN, and for the most part I truly enjoyed it. However, the character of Olaf was extremely distasteful; Olaf is a man who, if given an inch, takes a mile, and then dares everyone else to do anything about it, but that’s not the worst thing about him. Nope; this is a man who believes he should brutalize anyone he can — family, friends, slaves, it makes no nevermind, because Olaf believes he’s above it all.
And Olaf, because he is who he is, cannot handle being one among many; instead, he must go his own way — and while that would not be a bad thing most of the time, the way he goes about getting his own way is extremely distressing. Olaf, you see, believes that any slaves — male or female — are his to command, and he doesn’t care what he does with them in public or away from prying eyes; that he eventually is cast out of the new settlement doesn’t even slow him down very much, because he then decides he’s going to pillage the settlement out of spite.
While there is historical precedent for Olaf, I really wish Ms. Gable would’ve chosen a slightly less terrible characterization for him. Because I didn’t need to graphically see what Olaf was doing to torment his slaves; I especially didn’t need to see it through the eyes of a Roman Catholic priest.
That said, this is an interesting historical novel that I enjoyed quite a bit and believe anyone who enjoys history, comparative religions, the board game version of THE SETTLERS OF CATAN, the Vikings, or historical potboilers in particular will enjoy this novel.
— reviewed by Barb