Friday, February 10, 2012

Book review: The Settlers of Catan, by Rebecca Gablé

Can a novel with a mythical setting still be classed as historical fiction? When speaking of The Settlers of Catan, the answer – perhaps surprisingly – is yes. Rebecca Gablé’s English-language debut is based on the popular board game about the colonization of a fictional island. It also stands confidently on its own with a fast-paced adventure plotline and characters whose outlook reflects their time.

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.

German friends and bloggers have been telling me about Rebecca Gablé’s historical novels for years, so I opened the book with eagerness. Ably translated by Lee Chadeayne, her writing is reminiscent of Ken Follett’s: transparent and easygoing, with well-paced drama and animated descriptions that don’t impede the story’s flow. She also has the same ability to keep readers' attention over a saga of 600-plus pages.

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).

7 comments:

  1. Some friends of mine are avid boardgamers but although Settlers of Catan has come up in conversation many times none have mentioned the novel. You may just have given me a perfect gift idea :-)

    I am interested in your classification of this book as historical fiction rather than historical fantasy. Is there something besides the (apparently fantasy-mixed) elements of Viking culture and the Scandinavian point of origin that, for example, places the story in a relevant historical context or something that directly interacts with or depends on or explains historical events or people? Is the society that develops on Catan a historically realistic portrayal of how Viking colonies developed? What might distinguish the story from, for example, Guy Gavriel Kay's fantasy,A Song For Arbonne, which borrows heavily from mediaeval Provence and its courtly culture but where no characters, situations, events, or locations are anything but imaginary? I certainly don't mean to imply that imaginary locations or fictitious characters by themselves change a story from historical fiction to historical fantasy, but I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the point at which a story can cut loose from history or a historical setting and still be deemed historical fiction.

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  2. Part of my reasoning is that I consider historical fantasy to fall under the larger umbrella of historical fiction. I tend to use the HNS definition of the genre, which is pretty inclusive. If I were to see the two as distinct entities, though, this novel would bridge the gap between them. It has elements of both.

    What separates this book from Arbonne and other novels of its type: The world in which it takes place is Europe, on Earth. The warring beliefs are the Norse religion (with Odin as principal deity) and Christianity. Specific countries are named. The Viking culture and process of settlement are portrayed with care and accuracy. Although no year is given in the novel proper, the back cover lists the date as 850 AD, and the re-creation of the Viking lifestyle reflects this. (The author's afterword is enlightening in this respect.) Aside from the fictional characters, the one imaginary aspect is Catan itself.

    There are no supernatural phenomena, either, unless you count Odin's ravens, which are part of the Norse belief system and which wouldn't be out of place in a more straightforward historical novel.

    You bring up an interesting question about how much invention is possible with regard to the setting. Historical romances abound in which the hero/heroine comes from a fictional European kingdom (which may be based on some real place, or not, and which is vividly described). How about Michelle Cooper's Kingdom of Montmaray and its royal family? I don't hear these novels referred to as historical fantasy. Why is that, and what's the difference? :)

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  3. To add: According to the Catan blog, its location is meant to be in the area of the Azores. Although I'm not that familiar with the game (one reason I can say the book stands independently of it!) I'm given to understand that the novel has more of an anchor in the "real world" than the game does.

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  4. Thanks for this review, Sarah. I've had my eye on this one but was unsure if it would be worth reading. Now I know it is.

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  5. Thank you very much for your detailed explanation and the link, Sarah! That helps me put the novel in a different context and see where you are coming from. (The HNS mention of pseudo-histories and historical fantasies is why I often find the label historical fiction confusing or troublesome. It is why I sometimes employ the term straight historical fiction as a distinguisher.)

    The type of historical romances you mention are ones which I unhesitatingly classify as fairytale romance and dearly wish would be marketed as such by publishers. However, it would seem the historical romance label sells better because through the years I have seen no moves from either publishers or most romance readers to change this misleading classification. Perhaps there is also an element of snobbery – or “snubbery” – involved? Romances are already so denigrated that an association with “history” is perhaps seen to confer more legitimacy than “fairytale”. Likewise, based on what I have read about Michelle Cooper's books I personally would call the first YA fairytale fiction and the second (which appears to move the action to England) YA fiction with historical elements, not historical fiction.

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  6. It's nice that she had this book translated into English. The funny thing is that her (5 star!) German blockbusters are about medieval England! According to her bio she read German and English literature at Duesseldorf's Heinrich-Heine-University. On the (English language) Translations page of her website Ms. Gable' has listed the languages her books have been translated in and the books available in those languages--with Settlers of Caton being the only one available in English. One is about a merchant during the Hundred Years' War, two others are about the Norman Conquest and life after, and another about the White Ship incident and anarchy following. I haven't seen much recently written about medieval England during Norman times, and Ms. Gable' might be similar to Sharon Kay Penman in that her books are thick and seem to be dramatic sagas. I hope she would consider translating her other titles into English. I would love to read them and I think other historical fiction lovers would too. I personally think that they would do well in English-speaking countries.

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  7. Melissa - yes, I thought it was!

    Danielle - this is a title that defies not only easy but more complex categorization. It's not straight historical fiction, nor is it completely fantasy since it moves from one to the other. I can understand why you'd call romances of that type "fairytale," although for me that would make it sound as if the novels took place purely in an imaginary realm a la Tolkien. The "with historical elements" works somewhat better for me :)

    Kim - per a German poster on the Historical Fiction Online bulletin board, Rebecca Gablé has said that her next historical novel to be translated into English would be the 14th-c Das Lächeln der Fortuna (Lady Fortune's Smile) which would be out in 2013, with the next two in the series following in the next two years. To which I'd add: and hopefully after that, the Norman books!

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