“The Sugar Merchant” by James Hutson-Wiley

The Sugar Merchant

James Hutson-Wiley
New Generation Publishing (2018)
ISBN 9781789553208
Reviewed by Megan Weiss for Reader Views (10/2020)

“The Sugar Merchant” tells the story of Thomas Woodward.  As a child, he is the only survivor of his family after their village is destroyed in a vicious raid.  After days of wandering the wilderness, he is found by a monk from a local monastery, known as Eynsham.  Thomas is adopted into their community and is brought up in the Christian faith by the Brothers.  Upon reaching adulthood, and after amassing much knowledge about the markets and trade, he is sent on a pilgrimage to the Middle East.  There, Thomas is tasked with finding and copying rare, historic manuscripts in order to preserve ancient knowledge, as well as expand the monastery’s wealth by establishing trade markets.  Over the next couple of decades, Thomas will establish his own trading enterprise with a couple of newfound friends, amass his own wealth and knowledge, fall in love, and face grave peril.

“The Sugar Merchant” is told with wonderful, spellbinding, storyteller-like tone.  The scenes and images flow together so fluidly that, though filled with historic details and information, the book is quite easy and enjoyable to read.  I particularly enjoyed how the author has used historic terminology and spellings for various cities and objects.  It gives the book an extra dose of authenticity, while also showing that the author definitely took the time to do extensive research on his subject matter.

While personally I didn’t always find myself connecting with Thomas, I still found him to be a reliable narrator and was constantly drawn into the story further with each new historic clue and the new characters we are introduced to throughout the book.  One of my favorite things about “The Sugar Merchant” was the rich cast of characters.  In this book, we have at its heart a Christian, Jewish, and Muslim working together to form and succeed in trade markets, as well as develop a deep affection for each other. 

In particular, I enjoyed the specification made by Thomas that he, Jusuf, and Assad would pray together three times a day, each in their own faiths.  Even though they were from drastically different cultures and had different beliefs, they were still able to respect each other’s beliefs and engage in prayer together because, ultimately, they were all seeking guidance from their Lord.  Throughout the book, we see Thomas acknowledging that though his faith may decree various acts and beliefs as “wrong,” for the most part the Christians and Muslims are able to live and interact together in relative peace.  As they start hearing word of what historically would come to be known as the Crusades, and some of the violence that came with the actions of the Knights, we see Thomas questioning how it can be right for these fellows of his own faith to believe that they are enacting the Will of God by bringing harm to others, regardless of faith. 

This is an important and heartwarming theme to see in our current social climate.  There seems to be a lot of contention these days between those of different faiths, and we need to be reminded from time to time that believing differently than someone else doesn’t make that other person inherently wrong or evil. 

I do wish that we could have seen Thomas actually make his pilgrimage to Jerusalem toward the end of the book.  I felt like it ended rather abruptly, and like I was missing a final piece of the puzzle.  The only other drawback I found in “The Sugar Merchant” was that some of the chapters were quite long, and there wasn’t really any breaks or white space anywhere.  Personally, it made it hard to find good stopping points sometimes, when after a particularly deep or historically intense portion I felt like I needed a brain-break!  This could very well be just a personal preference, but sometimes adding section breaks or white space within chapters can help the timeline of the story feel more defined. 

Overall, I found “The Sugar Merchant” to be quite enjoyable and I’m glad I was given the opportunity to read it.  Many readers interested in historical fiction, especially that which takes place during earlier periods in history, would be quite charmed and intrigued by this book. 

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