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The Sugar Merchant follows the adventures of scholar and merchant Thomas Woodward. A twist of fate and a tragic childhood loss leads to him being adopted by a group of monks from a nearby abbey. It is there he meets the people who will ultimately play a role in shaping his future.
In essence, this book can be considered a coming-of-age story. Readers will see how Thomas develops from a naïve young man into an enterprising and respected individual in his own right. This evolution was shown through chapters detailing his transactions and interactions with the people he meets on his journey.
As a character, however, Thomas would have had more depth if equal attention were given to his own personal journey, not just as a scholar but also as a man. His relationships with God and with other people were never fully explored because of the need to narrate where his next voyage will take him. It was thrilling to read about the perils of the high seas and the age-old conflict between the Muslim and Christian world, but equally, readers would also have liked to discover what it meant to Thomas to give up his faith in order to wed the woman he loved and other details of a more personal nature. There is no doubt, however, that the book is well researched. Plot elements such as the contentious issue of religion, the fraught relationship among traders, and the tenuous peace between neighboring states consistently reflected the setting and the time period of the novel. In addition, the research was integrated into the book in such a way that it still read like fiction rather than an encyclopedia. Apart from the accurate depictions of war and conflict, readers will also gain insight into the impact of something as global as war on the everyday lives of the people living in that period.
James Hutson-Wiley was able to deftly provide a richly detailed narrative without burdening the plot with unnecessary trimmings and fillers. There were slight tendencies to dwell a little too much on the value of spice, the price of sugar, and other issues connected to trade. However, the author’s writing is so clear, crisp, and easy-to-follow that readers will still remain engaged even when reading about commerce.
The author was also skilled at describing people and places. The tumultuous history of early Europe, as well as the Middle East, served as a backdrop for the protagonist’s journey. The author’s vivid descriptions were evocative of the sights, sounds, and sensations of that era. There was also a careful and painstaking attention to even the most minute of details that added to the authentic feel of the book.
Though quite lengthy, readers will enjoy sinking their teeth into this book and getting lost in the annals of time. A full cast of characters, an intrepid hero, and an exciting plot were placed in the hands of a truly skilled author for the enjoyment of fans of historical fiction. Combining action and adventure with bursts of humor and humanity, this novel truly showcases the genre at its best.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars