Merchant From Sepharad

Fiction - Historical - Event/Era
310 Pages
Reviewed on 04/17/2023
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    Book Review

Reviewed by Foluso Falaye for Readers' Favorite

James Hutson-Wiley's Merchant From Sepharad follows Joshua ben Elazar's adventures and his attempt to understand commerce, love, and religion during the Commercial Revolution in the 12th century. Though his people live between Edom and Ishmael, Joshua embarks on various perilous journeys that involve dealing as a merchant in Portugal, becoming a Talmudic scholar in Cordoba, and endeavoring to establish a new trade route to India. Even as he faces swindlers, murderers, and harsh weather conditions, Joshua's infatuation with a Karaite woman presents his most troubling conundrum. Since a union with a Karaite is said to be forbidden, he wonders if the law can forbid association with other members of his faith. Will Joshua follow his heart and risk disobeying his people's laws?

Joshua is a kind, strong character that inspires admiration and respect. Even though his people's customs support slavery, he endeavors to free slaves from their inhumane reality. One of my favorite parts of the story was seeing him and other characters translate religious texts and explore Jewish history. I enjoyed reading about the real story ​behind the eight-day celebration of Chanukah. Such details of Jewish history create a rich, elaborate experience that reflects James Hutson-Wiley's thorough research. It keeps you engaged by revealing diverse events through the protagonist's perspective reasonably quickly. Hutson-Wiley weaves several intriguing themes, such as romance, pirates, sea voyages, desert storms, religious politics, betrayal, forbidden love, action, and more. Merchant From Sepharad is an exquisite, historically rich book. It is perfect for those who love stories about religion and history, especially Jewish history.

Jamie Michele

The Merchant From Sepharad by James Hutson-Wiley is a religious historical fiction novel that revolves around the main character Joshua ben Elazar, a 12th-century son of a powerhouse merchant who is determined to prove himself capable to carry on a legacy of trade and wealth. It doesn't really go very well. It seems that wherever Joshua lands in the world, the misfortune that befalls him is far greater than the small mercies he is afforded. In old Iberia, he is robbed of his goods almost the moment he steps off the ship, and finds that his contact Essua has been arrested. Once resolved, he is refused storage, driving Joshua first to arson, then to flight. He is aided by a rabbi who sets him on course for what is hoped to be protection under the banner of Crusaders, and in Qurtuba his faith is briefly restored, only to be dashed once again by marauders. Joshua keeps pressing and moving forward, traversing regions of the Mediterranean, mulling over Jewish philosophy, dreaming of retaking Jerusalem and trying to stay alive.

I did not struggle to understand where The Merchant From Sepharad storyline begins even though it is the third book in a series, but the first book I started with. James Hutson-Wiley is clear with where we are and who Joshua is straight in. The first thing that readers should know is that this novel is character-driven so anything and everything that happens does so to reflect Joshua's arc and not the other way around. It is set in the 12th century but is deeply and fully seeded in Joshua's outlook on the world as a Jewish man. There is no single page where a thought or a conversation or anything else that occurs is not crafted by or the result of Joshua's religion. Conversations are overwhelmingly political and philosophical, and readers who do not enjoy lengthy discourse will not get far in this book. This applies also to interactions and laws, and the advice he is given is all meant to guide him in a climate that is antisemitic at every turn. Interestingly, that advice and what he is taught along the way by his brethren are as diverse as the people he comes across in lands foreign to him. One might as well say the sky is purple and the other person says there is no sky. Ultimately, Joshua must, as we all must, decide who he is, what he believes, and how he will approach what is to come. I do not doubt that readers who crave immersive Jewish history and philosophy will find The Merchant of Sepharad to be a delight.

Asher Syed

A central theme of religious persecution in the 12th century is the point of take-off in James Hutson-Wiley's Merchant From Sepharad, book number three in The Sugar Merchant historical fiction series. Hutson-Wiley's newest novel continues the propulsive drama on the heels of book one of the series same name, and book two called The Travels of Ibn Thomas. Joshua ben Elazar narrates his tale in the first person past tense and confesses that part of his appetite for commerce expansion is to prove himself to his father. Joshua is Jewish and with Jews in medieval Europe being excluded from many professions and barred from guilds, trade was one of the only ways to build wealth. Hutson-Wiley puts Joshua in an almost uninterrupted chain of jeopardy that stretches from the arrest of a contact and sabotage of his imports, clashes with Muslim warriors and Christian knights, separation for protection of a love, exiles, taxation to avoid forced religious conversion to the dangers of travel on land and sea.

Merchant From Sepharad by James Hutson-Wiley is historical fiction from a Jewish point of view and is practically a textbook account of medieval Judaism. Joshua's conversations and what everyone he attaches himself to converses on is Judaistic doctrine, principles, and 12th-century political science as it applies to the Jewish people. The writing can be described as substance over style as Hutson-Wiley writes action scenes with brevity and declares them rather than describes them and has the same approach with emotion, whether thought or expressed. Since it is obvious that Hutson-Wiley's purpose is to educate readers on what a Jewish merchant would have been up against in the medieval period it does exactly that and Joshua's journey is less about trade or the many destinations and entirely about his own personal conflicts of faith. Barring one or two exceptions, Joshua's run-ins with Muslims and Christians are never favorable, so Joshua's meetings with rabbis and sympathetic allies highlight the community of Jews and the few supporters of the people, no matter where in the world they are. This is especially true since Joshua rarely solves his problems alone and depends on the community, thus proving the resilience of the Jewish faith throughout history and even today.

Rabia Tanveer

Merchant from Sepharad is the third novel in the Sugar Merchant series by James Hutson-Wiley. Joshua ben Elazar was just 18 years old when he traveled to Lishbunah (Lisbon) to set up a new business. Wanting to prove his worth to his father and make him proud, Joshua undertook the journey without realizing that his world was about to be turned upside down. Upon entering the city, his gold and goods were seized simply because he was a Jew. He didn’t know that such practices were common in that area, and Joshua must fight them all to survive. Away from home and among strangers, Joshua was forced to experience slavery, and injustice and survive all at once.

Merchant from Sepharad is a fantastic coming-of-age story about a young man who was dealt the worst hand by fate. Set in the 12th century, James Hutson-Wiley's story gives readers plenty of drama, action, and thrills, keeping them hooked. Joshua had big dreams and an even bigger role to fill, but he was ill-prepared for it all. He tried different things to survive before he settled on being a Talmudic scholar. Joshua’s coming-of-age story was tumultuous. The author gave readers perfect slices of our protagonist’s story. We saw him fall in love, find his faith, grow up, and mature far more quickly than he ever anticipated. The change in places tested his resilience but also his faith. The historical aspects were spot-on, the descriptions were fantastic, and the imagery was transportive. There was never a moment when I felt the story lagged. I felt as if I was next to Joshua as he cleared one hurdle after the other. I highly recommend this novel to anyone who loves reading historical fiction with relatable characters.

Anne-Marie Reynolds

Merchant From Sepharad is another great historical novel by James Hutson-Wiley. It was the 12th century, and the commercial revolution was in full swing. Joshua Ben Elazar tried setting up a business in Portugal, which was ruled by Muslims at the time, but corruption in the ranks put an end to it. Instead, he headed to Cordoba and started a new life, practicing as a Talmudic scholar, but he had to run for his life when he was accused of being an accomplice to murder. In one last-ditch attempt to save himself, he set up a new trade route to cash in on the riches that India had to offer. Success was critical to his survival, but his journey was fraught with danger. Can Joshua overcome the challenges? Will he find his true faith, or will all his efforts be in vain?

Merchant From Sepharad by James Hutson-Wiley is the third book in the Sugar Merchant series, and it’s every bit as good as the others. It can be read as a standalone, but the whole series is a fascinating peek into history. It’s clear that much research has been carried out, and this comes across in the scene descriptions and dialog. This is an adventure story with a firm base in religion and shows how different religious beliefs were perceived in those days. Written in the first-person, it allows us to experience Joshua’s life as it is told from his perspective. It’s about turning failure into success, discovering oneself, and finding love, as well as overcoming all the obstacles that get in the way. This is a riveting story that draws you in, with wonderful, colorful characters that you’ll love and get to know well as you follow a journey that intensifies with each page. Emotions run amok here, and you’ll feel every one of them in this captivating tale. If you enjoy historical fiction, you’ll love this book.