The Travels of Ibn Thomas

Written by James Hutsen-Wiley
Review by Anna Belfrage

The world at the beginning of the 12th century is a complicated place for a child born of the union between a Christian father and a Muslim mother. It becomes even more complicated when orphaned Thomas is uprooted from his life in Egypt and sent off to England, there to be raised by Christian monks.

The Holy Church (or rather some of the shadier organisations within it) are to play a central role in Thomas’s life. After arranging for him to be trained as a physician at the famous school in Salerno, the Church ensures Thomas ends up with a cushy job in Sicily. In return, he is to spy for the Church and poison the young Ruggerio of Sicily. Our protagonist refuses and is forced to flee for his life. Over the coming years, Thomas will survive pirates, befriend a hashashin, be sent on a secret mission to Damascus and, finally, make it to Jerusalem where he is determined to find out what happened to his father.

Hutson-Wiley is evidently knowledgeable about the complexities of the time, be they the divisions within the Holy Church or the enmity between the Sunni and Shia Muslims. There is a lot of detail in this book: about the texts Thomas studies, about the spices he uses, about how to make soap, about various methods of worship. Sometimes, all this detail causes the pace to drag.

The narrative is well-written with excellent descriptive passages. At times, it reads very much like a memoir, which creates a distance between the reader and the described events. However, for those fascinated by the religious friction in the time of the first crusades, The Travels of Ibn Thomas is an elucidating and recommended read.