The Merchant from Sepharad is the third book in James Hutson-Wiley’s excellent The Sugar Merchant series. As a quick refresher, The Sugar Merchant series focuses on the establishment of a mercantile empire beginning with the English orphan Thomas and the connections he makes in service of the Church. The second book, The Travels of ibn Thomas, centers on his son Thoma who becomes a physician under Roger II of Sicily. The Merchant from Sepharad continues the series with the travels of Joshua ben Elazar, the grandson of one of the original Collegantia’s (the precursor to a joint-stock company) founders.
In the novel’s beginning, Joshua’s father has tasked him with continuing the family tradition of mercantilism. When his first efforts fail in 12th-century Portugal, Joshua’s sent to Córdoba to become a Talmudic scholar. Failing that, Elazar offers him one last chance to prove himself: Joshua must establish a new lucrative trade route to India. In a world brimming with political and religious upheaval, Joshua must contend with external and internal forces to ensure his journey’s success.
Unfortunately for Joshua, his first two mercantile ventures fail. In the first, he assumes control of the Collegantia’s business in Portugal. He arrives in Lisbon with artisan crafts to sell. Due to corrupt officials, however, Joshua is unable to turn a profit. In a fit of anger, sees his efforts literally go up in flames.
He’s then sent to Córdoba, Spain to pursue a different path: that of a Talmudic scholar. In the sun-soaked streets of Spain, Joshua occasionally finds studying the intricacies of his faith tedious. Instead, he prefers the company of a sect of Jews known as the Karaites. Joshua’s association with the Karaites leads him into trouble when his friend murders a suspected enemy spy. As a result, he must flee for his life.
His final chance involves efforts to extend the Collegantia’s reach to India. Given everything young Joshua has suffered, can he succeed in his economic endeavors and expand his family’s legacy? Can he atone for the past? Can he reconcile his faith with the lovely Karaite woman he desires to marry?
The Merchant from Sepharad, and the whole The Sugar Merchant series, explores the complex interrelationships between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Medieval Europe and Asia thrived on the establishment of land and water trade routes between key locales such as London, Lisbon, Alexandria, Amalfi, Sicily, Constantinople, and Aden, Yemen. Alongside this, however, came violent political and religious conflict as myriad groups vied for control of trade routes and geographical areas.
Navigating this veritable boiling kettle takes a keen understanding of the religious, economic, political, and social factors involved. The author clearly possesses this in spades. Hutson-Wiley’s meticulous research and background in trade and finance brings medieval Europe and Asia to life with all of its intricacies, but he never fully glorifies or demonizes the various political and religious factions at work. As a result, he’s able to craft a believable world of corrupt officials, flawed protagonists, tragic defenders, desperate villains, and heartwarming families. It’s a vibrant world, despite the geopolitical machinations of the kings and popes and dynasties in power.
Hutson-Wiley effectively guides readers along Joshua’s journey from his home in Marrakesh to his final destination in Aden, Yemen. It’s hard to feel sympathy for Joshua at first. The young man’s inability to control his anger and his naïvete lead to disastrous consequences. On the other hand, Joshua grapples with his flaws and eventually learns from them, making for some powerful character development. I don’t know if that’s what the author intended, but it works and it works well.
James Hutson-Wiley has demonstrated yet again why he’s one of my favorite authors of historical fiction. His gift for exposition via dialogue instead of solely relying on description transforms his characters into real people, his plots into believable conflicts and interactions, and his historical information into something that leaps out of a dusty textbook with rich and engrossing detail. It’s a rare gift, indeed.
As someone from a non-Jewish background, I also appreciated the explanations of the variances in Judaic religious thought and the diasporic, political, and socioeconomic effects of antisemitism. Indeed, The Merchant from Sepharad does not glorify antisemitism and stresses the importance of community in Judaism.
One of my favorite passages from the story resonates with this:
We Jews are trapped between a Christian mortar and a Muslim pestle. If we are not to be ground to dust and discarded forever, we must retain our Identity and gain strength from it. We must have a common language, an understanding of G-d’s laws, and a common ritual, a tradition, for life itself…James Hutson-Wiley, The Merchant from Sepharad (London: New Generation Publishing, 2023): 87.
The Merchant from Sepharad follows in the footsteps of its predecessors as a deeply engrossing novel and makes a worthy addition to The Sugar Merchant series.
Thank you to Jim for a copy of this book!
Title: The Merchant from Sepharad
Author: James Hutson-Wiley
Publisher: New Generations Publishing
Publication Year: 2023
Page Count: 310pp
Featured image: A stained glass window of crusaders traveling to Jerusalem during the First Crusade (Getty Images/Jorisvo)