5 out of 5 stars
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The era of the Crusades can’t have been an easy time to be alive, what with the religious struggles (Christianity vs. Islam vs. Judaism) and the associated political turmoil –but, oh, what adventure! This is certainly the impression one gets when reading The Travels of Ibn Thomas, a historical novel by James Hutson-Wiley set in the early 12th century that whisks the reader through Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
We see this world through the eyes of Thoma, son of an English man and an Arab woman. When we meet him, though, Thoma is an orphan for all practical purposes, as his father, ostensibly a merchant but apparently a spy for the Church, has long gone missing somewhere in Jerusalem, and his mother had died of illness shortly after his birth. Through the support of the Church and various family members and family friends, Thoma winds up studying medicine in Italy and becomes a promising doctor, even winning a position as physician to Sicilian royalty.
The novel’s main storyline has to do with Thoma’s desire to find his father in Jerusalem. His path there is not straightforward, though: As he builds his career as a healer, he also promptly and involuntarily becomes embroiled in the arcane plots of secretive Church organizations interested in defeating “the infidels”, as well as in the equivalent machinations of Muslim rulers. Neither fully Christian nor Muslim, and neither completely English nor Arab, Thoma’s life is a constant struggle to navigate his way out of these political and religious crosswinds.
Throughout all these struggles, Thoma comes across as a sympathetic protagonist. The tale is told in the first person, and Hutson-Wiley very ably conveys what it’s like to be in the mind of a principled but conflicted young man. As Thoma makes various friends (and some enemies) from different backgrounds and creeds, the author deftly uses dialogue to depict these other personalities as well.
Thoma is clearly a memorable character, but in a way, it’s the world that he lives in that emerges as the main character of the novel. Hutson-Wiley does such a great job embedding us in the 12th-century world that we find ourselves as interested in the details of that world as in Thoma’s own adventures. Since the main character is a physician, it’s great that the author also manages to give a clear sense of what medicine was like in that age. He goes into some detail when Thoma must diagnose what a patient is suffering from, and even has him quoting some ancient medical texts as he seeks remedies for those ailments.
It also helps that the author uses Arabic, Greek, and Latin terms for many things in Thoma’s world. As a physician he uses “Af-Yum” (opium) to provide some relief for certain patients, for example, and is fascinated when he first bathes with “Sabun” (soap). His merchant father made his fortune in “Al-Sukkar” (sugar), and on a sea voyage, he tangles with “Peirates” (pirates). And one of the more fascinating characters he meets is a “Hashishi” (assassin).
While it was fun guessing what the “foreign” terms referred to, there were occasions when I had to resort to Google to find out what something meant. There are a lot of references to the “Franj”, for example – which turns out to be an Arabic term referring to Western Christians. And I must admit it I’d forgotten who the “Fatimids” were (a ruling dynasty in Egypt). I later learned that there’s a glossary of these terms at the end of the book that reveals all. I wish this had been mentioned in the foreword (or even just indicated in a table of contents). If I were to nitpick, I’d say this omission is the one flaw I could find in this book.
All in all, though, it’s hard to find fault with The Travel of Ibn Thomas, which I rate 5 out of 5 stars. It is what our history courses in school should or could have been. While keeping our attention with an exotic fictional adventure, Hutson-Wiley painlessly imparts insights into the 12th-century world. Only after finishing this book did I find out that this is a sequel to an earlier work, The Sugar Merchant. Fortunately, it stands on its own merits, although I will now want to read the first one as well.
This book and that earlier work will probably appeal to readers interested in history, perhaps particularly the Middle Ages and the era of the Crusades. But it is a tale so well told and an environment so well-crafted that just about any reader should find it enjoyable (but do check out the glossary at the end of the book to avoid puzzlement).
The Travels of ibn Thomas
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