By: James Hutson-Wiley
Publisher: New Generation Publishing
Publication Date: 2018
Reviewed by Diane Lunsford
Review Date: January 18, 2021
The Sugar Merchant by James Hutson-Wiley is a masterful and historically enriched body of work.
The journey begins in the 11th century. Thomas Woodward is in the throes of a commercial revolution. Set in the Mediterranean, the dichotomy of faiths; Judaism, Christianity and Islam are at the center of this story. At times, the interceptions are peaceful and other times, quite bloody. Interests of Western Christians have drawn lines with the Muslim world and war is imminent. The Church is on standby at the ready and will do anything to reclaim the Holy Land. At the center of the imminent conflict is Thomas and his Muslim partners’ prosperous sugar trade.
When conflict strikes, Thomas’ family is desecrated in a raid which is foundational to his life forever changing. For days, he wanders about in a starving and destitute haze. When he is rescued by a monk and taken to live at the abbey of Eynsham, he is educated. He trains to be a scholar, merchant and a spy. The underlying strategy of his astute teachers is to mold Thomas in such a way he can develop commerce in Muslim lands and disseminate critical information to the ‘Holy See.’ Thomas’ travels will deposit him in a multitude of coveted trading cities such as Almeria, Amalfi, Alexandria and Cairo. The perils will prove to be a true testament to Thomas’ success.
James Hutson-Wiley checks many critical boxes at the onset of this book. Before the proverbial ‘Chapter One’ unfolds, he treats his audience to the backstory and insights to his inspiration to write this exceptional book in his introduction titled ‘Translators’ Notes.’ In my opinion, this was quite savvy on Mr. Hutson-Wiley’s part because it sets the foundation of the ‘why’ and ‘how’ this tale came about. He addresses certain materials he came about during a visit to Cambridge and how he uncovered a ‘...collection of Cairo Genizah documents, as part of a research project, I discovered a manuscript in a dusty corner of the library...’ I likened this to a ‘tomb-raider’ meets historical journey about to unfold. To further assist in grasping the full embodiment of the story line, Mr. Hutson-Wiley provided a glossary at book’s end to assist his audience in understanding demographics and terminology used during this period of time in history. The storyline and pace move fluently from chapter to chapter and the education one attains throughout is delicious. I applaud Mr. Hutson-Wiley for writing a superb and engaging tale.
Quill says: The Sugar Merchant bundles cultural clashes, economic change and the face-off with determination and spirit to persevere no matter the challenge.