Friday, February 17, 2012

Historical Fiction: The Coffee Trader by David Liss

For this week, I thought I would take the opportunity to highlight a local San Antonio author that I discovered just a few years ago. David Liss's newest novel, The Twelfth Enchantment, was published this past August. But the first book by Liss that I ever picked up was given to me. The Coffee Trader is one of those books in which I was not always quite sure what was going on, but I was still utterly fascinated and just had to know how it all would end. I am also not typically a fan of historical fiction, but Liss's books have turned out to be the rare exceptions.

The Situation: Miguel Lienzo has a plan to get out of a bad financial situation by trading in coffee, which in 17th century Amsterdam is a new commodity. His trades in sugar have gone horribly wrong and have left him in the financial crisis he is in now. Miguel simply needs to buy and sell the coffee at the right price in order to not only be rid of his debt but also make a handsome profit.

The Problem: Miguel cannot openly deal in coffee as it is forbidden his community council. Also, because of his financial troubles, Miguel lives with his brother Daniel, whom he dislikes, and his brother's young pregnant wife, whom Miguel has a thing for and the feeling is pretty mutual. Also, an unstable Dutchman named Joachim is also after Miguel after losing five hundred guilders that Miguel invested for him. Joachim continues to essentially stalk Miguel looking for his money. Amidst all of this, and a few other seedy characters in the novel, Miguel must successfully, but illegally, trade the coffee, pay off his debt, and avoid being caught in the process. Oh yeah, and being a Jewish refugee from the Portuguese inquisition in Amsterdam has its own issues.

Genre, Theme, History: As I already mentioned this is a historical novel. And while neither that, nor the themes of commerce and religious persecution often excite me, I really got into this book. Perhaps it was the constant adventure and the fact that no matter what, Miguel really didn't know who to trust because at any moment any his so-called allies could have turned out to be against him. Also, Miguel is the uncle to Benjamin Weaver, the protagonist in Liss's first novel, A Conspiracy of Paper. But even though this novel is set about 30 years earlier, it is not considered a prequel.

This book also makes many references to the Portuguese Inquisition, whose main target were those who converted from Judaism and Catholicism, but were still suspected of secretly practicing one or those religions.

My Verdict: As I have mentioned already, this type of book is usually not my cup of tea, but I found myself thoroughly enjoying this book. Definitely a must for fans of historical fiction, and maybe even a few that aren't. I have never in my life had an interest in commerce in 17th century Amsterdam, but here I am endorsing this book.

Favorite Moment: I really enjoyed basically any moment where any of the characters, including Miguel, weren't quite sure how to consume coffee because it is such a new substance to them. This is definitely not a problem in our society today.

Favorite Character: Hard to say really. Liss likes to create characters that may be likeable, but still have some sort of major character flaw. I guess I would go with Hannah, the young Catholic bride because for me she was the most sympathetic. 

Recommended Reading: A Conspiracy of Paper is the first book by Liss in a three-book series that involves Benjamin Weaver (Miguel's nephew) and his adventures involving intrigue, politics, murder, religion, and even some romance.

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