Friday 1 March 2019

#BookReview — The Sugar Merchant by James Hutson-Wiley #Medieval #HistoricalFiction

The Sugar Merchant
By James Hutson-Wiley

The 11th century world through which the narrator, Thomas Woodward, travels is changing; marked by the emergence of a disruptive commercial revolution. In the Mediterranean, the great Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam meet, often in cooperation and peace but, at times, in bloody conflict. It is an era of migration, globalism and multiculturalism leading to a robust interchange of technology, ideas and the basic tools of international trade. But, the interests of the Christian west are on a collision course with those of the Muslim world. War is coming. The Church is rallying the nobles of Europe to embark on an ‘armed pilgrimage’ to reclaim the Holy Land. Now, Thomas and his Muslim and Jewish partners’ lucrative sugar trade is in jeopardy. Thomas’s own secret and dangerous mission, directed from Rome, will become filled with even greater peril.

When Thomas’s family is annihilated in a raid, his life changes forever. Wandering for days, starving and hopeless, he is rescued by a monk and is taken to live at the abbey of Eynsham. There he receives a curious education, training to be a scholar, a merchant and a spy. His mission: to develop commerce in Muslim lands and dispatch vital information to the Holy See.

His perilous adventures during the 11th century’s commercial revolution will take him far from his cloistered life to the great trading cities of Almeria, Amalfi, Alexandria and Cairo.

But the world in which he lives is chaotic. Struggling with love and loss, faith and fortune, can Thomas carry out his secret mission before conflict overtakes him? 

Spanning the tumultuous medieval worlds of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, The Sugar Merchant is a tale of clashing cultures, massive economic change and one man’s determination to fulfill his destiny.

“Long ago, I revealed that you will be doing the work of the Lord. On occasion, that work can cause pain and perhaps even death. Be not concerned. You are engaged in matters of importance to God and you are bound by your vow.”

Thomas was only eight years old when his parents were murdered by the traitorous Tostig and his band of Flemish mercenaries. Alone, lost and afraid, Thomas would have surely died if it had not been for Brother Leofric and the monks of Eynsham Abbey.

Eynsham became Thomas’ sanctuary, his home. Here he received an education. However, his schooling was different from the other boys who lived there. Yes, he learnt to read and write along with the rest of them, but he also acquired the skills of a merchant. If that were not enough, Brother Leofric taught him how to defend himself in a fight. Thomas was too respectful to ask why he needed instruction in the latter.

It was only later that he realised the monks had been preparing him for a very different life than the one offered inside the comforting and safe walls of a religious order. Nevertheless, the monks were quick to reassure Thomas that he would still be doing the Lord’s work. With the help of Thomas, Eynsham Abbey will become a centre of learning. However, to do so, they need to acquire the works of the ancients which are currently in the hands of what they called the Infidels. Thomas is entrusted with finding these manuscripts and copying them.

The Abbey’s plan for Thomas would see him travel to the trading cities of Almeria, Amalfi, Alexandria and Cairo. Here, under the disguise of a merchant, would he do the Lord’s work. However, world events threaten everything, including the survival of the manuscripts Thomas is so desperately seeking. It is a race against time. Can Thomas secure what the Abbey needs before the nobles, who are beginning to call themselves the Crusaders, attempt to recapture the Holy Land?

From an unobtrusive village in Essex to the House of Wisdom in the city of Al-Qahirah (Cairo), The Sugar Merchant by James Hutson-Wiley is one of the most compelling Medieval Historical Fiction books that I have ever read.

Spanning two continents, The Sugar Merchant is the extraordinary story of Thomas Woodward — merchant, spy, business partner, and friend. Hutson-Wiley’s compelling narrative and his elegant turn of phrase instantly enthralled me. Told in the first person from Thomas’ perspective, Hutson-Wiley writes with not only tremendous verse but also with an acute sensitivity to historical controversy. The duplicitous way Thomas is mentored by the monks of Eynsham Abbey and manipulated to do their bidding was masterfully illustrated. Thomas is unknowingly held to ransom by the Catholic Church and carries out her orders with this overwhelming sense of gratitude and obligation. However, there are times when Thomas does regret some of the information that he naively passes onto the Church, not realising the significance of it at the time, which suggests that in his subconscious Thomas recognises that he is being used and the Church can be dangerous. There is no doubt in my mind that Hutson-Wiley has a wonderful novelist eye when portraying the human condition. Thomas is almost altruistic whereas the Church, as an institution, is described as manipulative and self-seeking. It made a very interesting comparison. 

Although Thomas is the protagonist in this story, there are some magnificent secondary characters in this book, and through them, Hutson-Wiley has explored not only the meaning of friendship but also religion and how it can unite rather than divide. Assad was one of my favourite characters. He is a Muslim who has followed in his father’s footsteps and become a merchant. Assad is an intelligent and a wonderfully enigmatic character who hates camels — all bar one — and exercise! However, he loves elegant clothing and good company. I thought his portrayal was sublime. Hutson-Wiley has created a character who just by being himself is incredibly entertaining. Jusuf, who practices the Jewish faith, is another fabulous character worthy of mention. He has, by contrast, a very calm and collected personality. I thought the relationship between Thomas, Assad and Jusuf was really rather wonderful. They make an unlikely trio, but they all accept each other for who they are and not for their theological beliefs. 

The historical detail in this book has to be commended. It is so luxuriant and rich in the telling that I can only imagine how many hours Hutson-Wiley spent researching this era. However, his dedication has certainly paid off, for he has crafted a story that has an incredibly authentic feel. Taking into consideration that The Sugar Merchant encompasses several very different kingdoms, which are unique not only in their history but their geographical landscape and climate, makes this novel a monumental work of impressive scholarship. Add to this the vivacious storytelling, means that whichever way you look at it, this story is a real winner. 

What makes The Sugar Merchant so successful when compared to others in its genre is the way Hutson-Wiley has cleverly blended action, religion, espionage, commerce, romance, fear, hate, war, peace, trade and the occasional pirate all within 378 pages, and let’s not forget the meticulously researched historical setting and the colourful cast of unforgettable characters as well! This book has everything a lover of historical fiction could want, and then some.

If you are to read only one book this year, then let it be this one.

I Highly Recommend.

Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.

James Hutson-Wiley

Born in Washington, D.C., Jim grew up in nearby Arlington, Virginia.  In 1961, he accompanied his parents to live in Kabul, Afghanistan where he traveled extensively and participated in an archeological expedition to Aq Kupruk near the Russian border.  Following graduation from high school in Beirut, Lebanon, he attended Georgetown University where he received a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service and, subsequently, the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania where he received a Masters degree in Business Administration.  At Wharton, Jim was awarded a teaching fellowship in international business and completed course work and oral examinations for a PhD in Applied Economics and economic history.  To his great regret, he never wrote the required dissertation and thus cannot claim that degree.

In 1972, Jim and his business partner, Burn Oberwager, formed an export trading company specializing in the financing of energy related infrastructure development projects in the Near East and Asia.  Jim established an overseas office in Beirut, Lebanon from which he conducted business in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf States.  The Lebanese civil war forced an evacuation of the company to Rome, Italy where Jim lived and worked for three years.  In Rome, Jim read extensively about the financial history of the Vatican and created the story-line for a co-authored novel, the Piedmont Conspiracy published by Madison Books in 1979 and translated and published in Spain by Via Magna Press in 2006.  In 1978, Jim moved the company’s headquarters to London and continued to conduct business in the Near East, Africa and Europe where he traveled extensively.  He returned to the United States in 1987.

Jim is the retired President of SFG Capital Corp. which designed and financed business process outsourcing projects for major multinational enterprise and governmental agencies.  More recently, he has served as a partner in and a Director of US Development Group ( which supplies railroad logistics services to the petrochemical industry in the United States, Canada and Mexico. 

Jim lives with his wife, Olga Echevarria and two Chartreux cats in Miami Florida.  He is an avid scuba diver and an enthusiastic student of 11th and 12th century European and Islamic economic history.  He has traveled to Spain on numerous occasions accompanying his wife to visit her family.



  1. Congratulations on your award, Jim!

  2. Congratulations on your award. Your book sounds very intriguing.

  3. Congratulations on the award! Your book sounds great - such an interesting and eventful period.


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx