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A Deeper Look at The Merchant’s Tale


Against a stormy sea and a foundering sailing ship, two boatloads of sailors struggle to reach shore; cover of The Merchant's Tale

It’s a week now since The Merchant’s Tale became available on Amazon.com. (If you prefer to order through a bookstore, have patience with us, please: we’ve encountered a technical glitch that is taking time to work out.) To celebrate the one-week anniversary, I am breaking with tradition and posting on Wednesday instead of Friday.


So what can I say about The Merchant’s Tale that I haven’t already said? You have the essence of the story from the last two weeks’ posts, as well as from the link above. But boiling an entire novel down to two paragraphs forces the summarizer to leave out a great deal. What’s most visible in the cover text is the main source of tension: in this case, politics—specifically, the jockeying of various European powers for supremacy. The book is set in the mid-sixteenth century, a time when England under its Tudor monarchs felt shut out of the European market by the Belgians and the Dutch. In search of new markets, a group of Merchant Adventurers (their own name for themselves) under the command of Richard Chancellor set off to seek a northern route to China and the East Indies.


Instead, they found Russia, which when they arrived in 1553 was locked in an on-again/off-again war with the dynastically joined states of Poland and Lithuania to its west. At the moment when Chancellor and his men arrived, Russian nobles felt pretty good about themselves, since the year before they had conquered the Khanate of Kazan, their main competitor in the east. Surely, with a little help from these strange foreign friends, the tsar’s army would have no trouble eliminating the country’s western enemies as well.


From a twenty-first century perspective, it may be difficult to imagine Russia, a global if rather tattered superpower, not being able to control Poland and Lithuania, which were allied, however reluctantly, with the Soviet Union as recently as thirty years ago. But at the time when The Merchant’s Tale takes place, Russia was only about half the size it is now, and that only because it had just incorporated Kazan. Ukraine was not part of Russia at all. Instead it belonged to Lithuania, which together with Poland controlled a huge swath of land from the Baltic Sea almost to the Black Sea.


Tsar Ivan the Terrible, despite his moniker, couldn’t imagine taking back Ukraine. What he wanted was artillery that would give his landlocked state an entry to the Baltic Sea. Pretty much everyone else in Europe wanted to make sure Ivan got no such thing. Even Edward VI of England and his older half-sister, Mary Tudor—who succeeded Edward during Chancellor’s first voyage—had little incentive to arm the tsar. But when the English merchants showed up on Ivan’s doorstep, having circumnavigated Scandinavia, it occurred to the tsar that there might be another path to his goal.


That’s the background to the story, but of course, a novel is not a history lesson. The main part of the tale involves a fictional sister and brother—Pyotr and Selina, the orphaned children of a cloth merchant who lived for some years in Danzig (Gdansk) before returning to his Moscow home. While abroad, his children acquired a classical education, and the daughter, Selina, was promised to a young and upcoming merchant of German descent, Karl Scharping. Back in Russia, Selina, still a child, promptly forgets about her promised bridegroom. When the book begins, though, it becomes clear that Karl has not forgotten either her or his friendship with Pyotr.


At first, Selina seems to accept the idea of Karl as a husband—girls in those days didn’t have much say in whom they married, so her expectations are low. But when she falls madly in love with Charles Anderson (also fictional), one of the Englishmen traveling with Chancellor, her view of what she can expect in life changes. Meanwhile, Karl and Pyotr are trying to corner the trade in caviar from the south, and their business partnership can only be strengthened by Karl’s marriage to Selina.


The pressure is on. Can Selina resist? Will Charles remain true? Or, as her friends and family insist, is she placing her future at risk by trusting a man who may have no more to recommend him than a pretty face and a gift for Latin verse?


Is it a love story? No, not quite. It has elements of mystery, although it’s not a classic amateur detective novel either. It really is historical fiction—about the clash of cultures and expectations, the difficult journey to taking control of one’s own life (especially for women), about conflict and disappointment and forgiveness, and perhaps a window onto a little-known world.


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