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The SETTLERS of CATAN
by Rebecca Gable

First Published in the German language in 2003 by Bastei Lübbe

Translated into English by Lee Chadeayne and published by AmazonCrossing in 2011

Contains illustrations by Klaus Teuber the designer of the Settlers of Catan Game (1995)

The Review:

This tale begins close to the start of the Iron Age of the 9th Century in what appears to be a fairly small community
called Elasund, on the coast of Northern Europe, possibly Germany. Here the villagers fish, tend horses, sheep and
cows, and plant seed/harvest crops (probably wheat but never actually named as such). They have a Blacksmith, a
Carpenter (Candamir) a Boat Builder (Berse) and a self appointed leader, Olaf, who has somehow managed to grab
for himself the most slaves,  the largest house, the biggest fields and the most sheep. They live peacefully in Elasund
minding their own business and worshipping the Norse Gods, Odin in particular. Olaf is rich by Elasund standards
even having valuable wall hangings in his home. I understand being rich in this period may mean land, livestock,
food, slaves etc but I am at a loss as to what a valuable wall hanging might be and from where it came considering
the Elasunds weren't raiders. 

Candamir and his life time friend, Osmund, are swimming in a bay enjoying the refreshingly cold Atlantic Ocean waves
when they notice smoke pluming upwards from the village. Rushing back they see Turon ships in the harbour and can
now hear the screams of their kin as the Turon raiders rape, steal and pillage. The two friends set about fighting off the
raiders and are soon in the thick of battle, cutting a swathe through the armoured swarm as they attempt to reach the
burning barn in which many of the men and children have been herded with the doors locked on them. Elasund is a
beowulf style village attacked irregularly by Viking style raiders - possibly from Denmark - and equipment,
food, livestock, women and children stolen. The raiders escape in their boats during the chaos and are quickly out to sea 
before further retribution can be taken. Raids like this one have happened in the past whenever the Turons need more
women and slaves but on this occasion although Olaf's holdings are untouched and a raider captured alive, many of the
villagers have lost everything and cannot see how they are to continue with the harsh winter approaching.

At a council meeting, which the Elusunds call the Thing, Olaf speaks of an island hidden and protected by a raging storm
where the sun shines all the year round. The Thing decides that it is worth taking the chance on beginning a new life on 
this island and nine ships set sail. Not all of the Elasunds wish to take the chance and so about half of them stay to rebuild.
The ships are loaded with provisions, seed for planting, livestock - sheep, cows and horses - as well as the necessary tools
for the Blacksmith, Carpenter and other crafters.

The ships sail North-East and by regarding a map and guessing roughly the passage I figure they sailed either round or between 
the Shetland and Orkney Islands before heading North-West towards the Cold Islands (Faroe Islands) where they stop to trade
with the self-appointed King, Cnut. Treachery abounds and the Elasunds escape Cnut's evil intentions - to steal and kill rather
than trade - getting back onboard and sailing away with Cnut's ships in pursuit. The Elasunds find they also have a passenger,
Siglind, Cnut's Queen, who has run away and thrown herself on the mercy of the Settlers, as a slave rather than a Queen.

After this they sail for about 4 days before they meet the expected Storm, though this happens to be just a storm and not the one
they were expecting, that comes about a day later. The storm wrecks Candamir's ship and other ships are pushed further onwards
but land is sighted close by and Osmund is the first to set foot on the new land. Again regarding the map I am assuming the new
land is either the Azures or Bermuda (which is what I was originally thinking because of the description, the storms etc) but with
9th Century sailing ships generally managing around 4-5 knots (120 nautical miles) a day reaching either of these guesses is pushing
it quite considerably.

Olaf tells them that they have found Catan, Odin's land, and they all see how beautiful and bountiful it is. They start to clear the
forrests, getting wood ready for building and the land ready for tilling. Candamir's younger brother, Hacon, falls fouls of Olaf and
is about to be whipped to death when Candamir steps in and suffers half the punishment. This angers Olaf and he forces the two
brothers to work on his house which he rules with an iron hand, beating his sons and slaves, and also physically sexually abusing
them, this latter aimed mainly at the captured Turon, who he claimed as his own even though he lost nothing in the raid, and whose
tongue he has cut out. We learn later that this was because the Turon was going to speak of the sexual attrocities Olaf was
committing on him.

Catan grows as the Thing has determined the order of house building and each family begins to settle into a domesticity different
than it was on Elasund. Although it has been there in underlying little vignettes so far it is now that Christianity begins to raise it's
head, through the teachings of Austin, Candamir's Saxon slave. As God and Christianity grow the Settlers begin to split into two
factions, those who still regard Odin as their God and those who now believe in the God whose prophet is the Son of the Carpenter.
Things are coming nicely to the boil with ancient ways and rituals being questioned regularly and then Olaf is caught with his pants
down and his Turon slave bent naked before him. Olaf is sentenced to death by having a poisonous snake wrapped in a reed and
forced down his throat so that it would kill him from inside. Olaf escapes before this can happen and takes several slaves, his and
others, plus two of his sons, provisions and livestock onto his ship and sails away.

Over the next six or so years Olaf and his ever growing new settlement, set amongst the caves in the wastelands, continue to raid and 
steal from the main village. When Olaf dies in a fight with Candamir, Lars, his son, takes over and is just as bloody minded as his
father was. Candamir and Hacon are kidnapped and held as slaves for the splinter settlement, and under the threat of Candamir's
life Hacon is forced to be the Blacksmith and make new weapons for Lars and his men. Some six months pass until eventually Candamir
and Hacon escape, but when they get back to their village things have dramatically changed. Osmund's wife has become the Witch or
oracle following old Birgitta's death and she has turned Osmund against Candamir's family and all the Christians who have followed
Austin. Candamir still believes in Odin but over the time on Catan he has started to doubt and has taken to some of the ways of the
new God. Now he finds that the village has once again split.

Candamir, Siglind, Austin, Hacon and the Christians sail off round the island until they reach the other side, putting the spinal mountains
between them and the first settlement, there they find paradise in the form of a beautiful sandy beach and all the land and forrest they
could ever need - the new Settlers of Catan were about to embark on yet another new life.

My own opinions of this 600+ page book is that it is a page-turner, I read it very quickly from cover to cover, but even with the names
Elasund and Candamir (both expansions for the Settlers of Catan board game) and naming Odin's Land Catan I didn't really feel that
I was reading a book based on the game. For one thing there is more emphasis on Cattle and Horse raising than there is on sheep. Yes
sheep are important but not anywhere to the same degree they are in the game. Also the murders, the rapes, the fighting, none of that
sounds like the Catan I know and resources such as Stone and Ore are used more for weapons and tools than for building. A couple
of questions that arose as I read are did 9th Century folk really value cloth hanging on their walls and did these folk use the word 
screwing for having sex ? 

The Settlers of Catan is a good semi-historic story that takes us on a journey through the lives of 9th Century villagers, their trials and
tribulations. Most characters are stereotypes from other stories or movies, but instead of making the reader feel for Candamir, the obvious
hero, the author keeps bringing us into his life so that we like him and then pushing us away as his beligerence and blinkered views take
over. The story is the journey of the Settlers from Elasund to Catan, and it is the story of the new religion worming its way into the Settlers
lives as they journey from their Norse Gods towards Christianity. It is also the story of one man's journey, that of Candamir, through the
phases of his life. 

Author Rebecca Gable began her writing career with detective novels and then changed direction and wrote about the English Middle-Ages.
Klaus Teuber asked her to write the book of the game. 

 

© Chris Baylis 2011-2015