Book Review: The Travels of Ibn Thomas by James Hutson-Wiley
Publication Date: 24th November 2020 Publisher: New Generation Publishing Genre: Historical Fiction
Thoma, the son of Thomas, the Sugar Merchant, born in Egypt but raised in England, is sent to the famous Salernitan Medical School to train as a physician in the early twelfth century. In Sicily, he saves the life of a prince and becomes court physician. But disaster strikes; escaping from Sicily, he is captured by pirates, befriends an assassin, and is plunged into political and religious turmoil in the Holy Land following the first crusade.
The adventures of a man torn between religious and political loyalties, and embroiled in international conflict and intrigue, The Travels of ibn Thomas, the second book in the series that began with The Sugar Merchant, is a gripping story of one man's life, and a fascinating glimpse into the tumultuous twelfth century commercial and scientific revolution when the three Abrahamic faiths meet in both cooperation and deadly conflict.
“Here I was, a Christian pretending to be a Muslim who would now pretend again to be a Christian. At best, this was confusing…”
…and not to mention dangerous. But Thomas lives in a world of chaos and confusion, where religious intolerance and political uncertainly ran hand in hand with wealth, greed, power, and fear.
Torn between religious and political loyalties, Thomas, a respected court physician, is determined to find out exactly what had happened to his father. If his father was dead, as he was rumoured to be, then Thomas could claim his inheritance, which the Abbey held in trust until his majority. But not everyone wants Thomas to discover the truth of what had happened to his father, and they will stop at nothing to keep Thomas from claiming what is rightfully his…
From a young man’s ambition to become a respected physician to an extraordinary audience with the Pope, The Travels of Ibn Thomas by James Hutson-Wiley is what Historical Fiction is all about!
The narrative of this novel swept me away. Hutson-Wiley’s crystalline prose and his intuitive understanding of what makes history worth reading made this book unputdownable. This is a story that not only captured my attention from the opening sentence but continued to hold it until the final full stop. This book is, in all ways, a Historical Fiction triumph.
Told in the first person, The Travels of Ibn Thomas is the story of one young man’s search for the truth. Due to his rather unconventional upbringing, Thomas finds himself at a disadvantage right from the start. He was born a Muslim, forced to convert to Christianity, and has a Jewish adoptive uncle, which means Thomas is in a unique, yet dangerous position. Hutson-Wiley captured the very real struggle that Thomas has with his identity. Torn between two warring religions, he must ultimately choose, knowing that either way he risked being accused of apostasy. When he finally does decide to embrace one religion, he does so not because he has suddenly seen the light, but because it serves his own desires to do so. By choosing, he finally takes control of his destiny.
As stated above, throughout this novel Thomas has to hide who he is behind a religious mask—depending on who and where he is. His position as a court physician does open some doors, but he is constantly living a double life, pretending to be someone he is not. It is only occasionally when he lets this mask slip, such as drinking wine while practising the Muslim faith. At times, Thomas feels tremendous guilt at all the pretence, but his determination to claim his inheritance, which has been put in the Church’s trust, means that he is determined to play the part he has been given until he can claim what is rightfully his. Despite this pretence, Thomas does develop close friendships. Thomas is genuinely fond of Sukman Ibn Artuq, and I thought their relationship was particularly telling. Thomas and Sukman are thrown together in unforeseen circumstances, and they continue to travel together for a good part of this book. Sukman is a character who is exceedingly sure of himself. He knows who he is. He knows what he believes, and he knows who his enemies are. He is also consistently loyal to Thomas, saving his life on several occasions. It is just a shame that Thomas can never confess to Sukman of his own conflicted feelings when it came to his spiritual uncertainty.
The novel questions the traditional notion of morality, faith, and justice. Hutson-Wiley has depicted a Holy Land in crisis where Christians despise Muslims and the Muslims return their feelings. But there are also religious tensions between the Shia and the Sunni, and, not forgetting, the Western Christians’ rather ungodly feelings towards the Greeks. The Jewish population had been systematically abused and murdered. This is a Holy Land soaked in blood. There is no meeting in the middle of the religious factions in this book. There are no negotiations, no sitting down and thrashing out theological debate, which makes it even more of a distressing situation for Thomas because he is straddling two profoundly different religions. However, Thomas sometimes uses his understanding of both faiths to his advantage, although he is often left befuddled by what he witnesses. This point is driven home by his friendship with Sukman who is indifferent to taking human life, but must ask Allah for forgiveness for taking a horse’s life.
The desperate desire for revenge is an underlying theme that is woven with great skill between this remarkable book’s pages. The concept of what revenge looks like and how it should be delivered is often up for debate, and although Thomas is content to live a life of peace, others are not so forgiving. Brother Jehan is a brooding, dark character that fascinated me because while he spews his hatred at the Moors, it is, in fact, himself and the things that he has done in the name of God that are really at the heart of the matter. This deeply conflicted, emotionally damaged character follows a path that there is no coming back from. Hatred and fear guide him and he will destroy anyone who gets in his way. I thought Brother Jehan’s portrayal was particularly well-drawn.
Hutson-Wiley has an especially dry sense of humour, and this shines through in his writing. There were many times when I found myself laughing out loud. I wasn’t expecting this novel to be as amusing as it was, but with characters such as Roland, there is no way you can read this book without being highly amused.
The historical detail in this novel has to be commended. Hutson-Wiley’s understanding of this era, of the warring factions, the uncertainties, the way trade was done, and the underlying social conventions shone through in every sentence. Hutson-Wiley deserves the highest of praises for his depiction of this period in history.
Although this novel is the second book in the series, it does stand firmly on its own two feet, but I think you would be doing yourself a grave disservice if you did not read The Sugar Merchant first.
The Travels of Ibn Thomas by James Hutson-Wiley is, without a doubt, one of the best novels I have ever read that depicts this period of history. This novel is a must-read.
I Highly Recommend.
Review by Mary Anne Yarde. The Coffee Pot Book Club.
Amazon UK • Amazon US Jim Hutson-Wiley's long career in international trade and project finance involved extensive travel and residence in the Near East and Europe. He graduated with a BSFS from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and received an MBA from the Wharton School. He currently lives in Miami, Florida with his wife and two Chartreux cats.