The beginning takes the form of a classic emigration story transposed to the 9th-century Viking age. With its harsh coastal climate, devastation caused by marauding rivals, and impending famine as winter approaches, the Scandinavian village of Elasund is suffering. The uprooting of its sacred ash tree is a sign that something needs to change.
Foster brothers and best friends Candamir and Osmund believe their only hope for survival is to establish a new home elsewhere, and their forward-thinking attitude spreads. Five ships of people and animals head out a traumatic journey, and a nasty storm dumps them, at last, near a green island somewhere southwest of the Franks. They name the place Catan, which means “land of starlight” in one of their favorite myths about Odin, and indeed the place seems blessed by the gods.
With its arable soil, mild climate, and abundant water and forests, the once-seafaring community decides to settle inland and build houses there. This is where the novel’s game-based origin is most obvious, and it requires some suspension of disbelief for fans of realistic fiction. The large island is conveniently uninhabited, and the native livestock are so docile they’re easily captured and put to use, though not all resources (iron, seeds for cultivating crops) are as simple to find, or to negotiate for.
The traditional social order prevails despite this new beginning, which sets off a violent tug of war between old ways and new. Candamir’s Christian slave, a former monk, begins winning new converts, a dangerous prospect in a place thought to be Odin’s creation. Squabbles and romantic rivalries arise. Most troubling is the long-held custom of blood vengeance, which caused unnecessary suffering in Candamir’s family and which he wants to see abolished. Others disagree. Gablé skillfully develops these and other disputes into full-blown rivalries over the course of the book.
The pagan villagers are a practical people; after they sacrifice an animal, they cook it up and eat it, as outsiders are bemused to note. Everyone has an assigned task in this well-ordered culture, from shipbuilders and smiths to the elderly high priestess and her mysterious white ravens. When people take on different roles, shifts in power start to happen, and that’s when things really get interesting. Seen from the outside, the novel is an intriguing exercise in societal development. It’s fun to read, too.
The length is the book’s most demanding aspect. It takes no effort at all to read, but by the end I felt like I’d lived through a substantial part of the settlers’ lives along with them. Give The Settlers of Catan a try for a different approach to Viking-era fiction, whether or not you’ve played or even heard of the game.
The Settlers of Catan was published by AmazonCrossing, Amazon's imprint for translated fiction, in November in paperback at $14.95 (trade paperback, a nice chunkster at 604pp).