4 out of 4 stars
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Thomas is just an eight-year-old boy living in England when his family is killed during a raid. He runs away through the dense nearby forest, but, as the days go by, he is becoming hungrier and hungrier, until he steals a loaf of bread from a faraway church before he is ruthlessly chased down, only to narrowly escape from severe punishment by running away once again.
During his aimless travels across the country, he meets a kind monk who takes him to the Benedictine abbey of Eynsham, where Thomas begins his new life full of adventures.
This is the premise of The Sugar Merchant by James Hutson-Wiley, a book that has been translated from an ancient manuscript the author once found within the Cairo Genizah collection at the Cambridge University Library. He painstakingly translated it, put it together in a book form, and, where the text was illegible, he took some fictional liberties with it while keeping the general factual accuracy of those times. The story is a long letter to Thomas’s son in a diary format. It is a coming-of-age tale about Thomas Woodward, describing his life between 1066 and 1098.
Although Thomas didn’t have it easy growing up, he embraced everything he did with passion, most of which revolved around his devotion to the Church, along with his training as a fighter, merchant, and spy, all which would serve him well later on while living in faraway lands.
The story grabbed me because of the author’s detailed descriptions of the various places during the 11th Century in England and the Middle East. We experience the clash of cultures and beliefs between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and we see the unfolding of a strong but dangerous commercial revolution. The research was meticulous for this book, especially concerning the religious upheaval during those times and the international trade between Europe and the Middle East.
We also catch a rather unusual aspect involving the monks at the abbey: their knowledge of fighting, which is one of the skills they passed on to Thomas. During his journey to distant lands, he had several opportunities to prove the survival skills he once learned at the abbey. The scene with him rescuing his friends from prison was one of my favorites in the book.
Thomas completed his scholar duty to the abbey without neglecting his life as a merchant away from home. I could relate to his torment about his diminishing faith in God, as opposed to his growing love for material things, especially as he would become richer and richer through his sugar trade and his new way of life.
He often faced serious life challenges and questions that put his faith to the test. When given the choice between renouncing his religion to marry the Muslim woman he loved or not marrying at all, he was really conflicted, and when he found another solution that didn’t involve relinquishing his faith, you could hear his relief all the way to the 21st Century.
While the book was intriguing and a delight to read, I came across a few editorial issues, such as not using commas between two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction and using a semicolon instead of a comma or a colon when the latter were more suitable. Some additional errors I found were “the brothers access to” instead of “the brother’s access to,” “was not Andalusi, Arab nor Berber,” instead of “was not Andalusi, Arab, or Berber,” and “prayed God” instead of “prayed to God.”
Despite these grammatical and punctuation issues, I rate The Sugar Merchant 4 out of 4 stars because the story was excellent, I was captivated throughout, and I was glad to read a piece of forgotten history set in the medieval times. It is an endearing tale, and if you like character-driven historical fiction novels which also include moments of action and adventure, you will have a marvelous time with this book. In addition, lovers of all things business and economics will have fun reading about the emergence of early trade. People who only read fantasy, sci-fi, or contemporary novels might not enjoy this book so much.
The Sugar Merchant
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