Saturday, January 29, 2011

Review: By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan

By Fire, By Water
by Mitchell James Kaplan
Release Date: May 18, 2010
2010 Other Press LLC
Softcover Edition; 284 Pages
ISBN: 978-159051352-1
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Review Copy from Publisher

4 / 5 Stars

Luis de Santángel, chancellor to the court and longtime friend of the lusty King Ferdinand, has had enough of the Spanish Inquisition. As the power of Inquisitor General Tomás de Torquemada grows, so does the brutality of the Spanish church and the suspicion and paranoia it inspires. When a dear friend's demise brings the violence close to home, Santángel is enraged and takes retribution into his own hands. But he is from a family of conversos, and his Jewish heritage makes him an easy target. As Santángel witnesses the horrific persecution of his loved ones, he begins slowly to reconnect with the Jewish faith his family left behind. Feeding his curiosity about his past is his growing love for Judith Migdal, a clever and beautiful Jewish woman navigating the mounting tensions in Granada. While he struggles to decide what his reputation is worth and what he can sacrifice, one man offers him a chance he thought he'd lost.the chance to hope for a better world. Christopher Columbus has plans to discover a route to paradise, and only Luis de Santángel can help him.

My Thoughts
I am a huge fan of historical fiction and love learning about time periods of which I am not so familiar.  While I am very familiar with the Inquisition itself, and know quite about it in other parts of Europe, I have to admit that I am not as versed with the Spanish Inquisition, in particular, how the Jewish people were treated during this time period. 

Conversos were Jewish people who had converted to Christianity during these troubled times, but were often treated with suspicion and often brought in by the priests of the Church for questioning.  It was illegal to have any Jewish trappings in one's household, including Jewish books, vestments, candles, statues, and so on.  Any suspicion would be treated severely and could result in torture and death.  Luis de Santangel, the main character in the novel, is a third generation Converso, a close associate of King Ferdinand, with many ties to the throne and to many high ranking people the land, as well as chancellor of Aragon.  Yet, he is attracted to the Jewish faith and its teachings and secretly meets at night with a few others to discuss things he would not dare to discuss during the light of day.  When one of the men betrays one of the others, and that man is tortured and killed, Luis is afraid of what that man might have said to implicate him and the others.  Thus begins a long arduous path to discover the truth and clear his name.  Unfortunately, he has to undergo some personal losses and tragedies before everything comes to its conclusion.

I was totally fascinated by the events in this novel, shuddering at quite a few of them.  Mr. Kaplan writes with great skill in that he manages to convey the atrocious and horrifying events that some of the people went through without being overly graphic and bloody.  I actually think that made it worse for me as my imagination could picture the scenes so vividly I was overwhelmed at times.  The scenes when the Jewish people were evicted from Spain were just heartbreaking and so many men, women, and children were killed, or left to face a new life from the one which they have known for generations. 

While I admired Luis for how he dealt with some things, I didn't feel connected to his character like I did with some of the others such as his brother Estefan or Judith, whom I admired considerably.  While some scenes, like the one where he breaks the table after a certain event, I could understand and feel empathy, some of the scenes I felt disconnected, such as the one where he had to leave his son behind in the church.  You would think that such a scene would convey powerful emotions.  I know that I would be kicking and screaming the cell down before I would ever leave my child behind.  Is it a sign of the times that I just didn't understand, that Luis did what he had to do to protect his child, and the disconnectedness was his way of protecting himself?  It's hard to say, but maybe I'm more of a coward than he is.  I also thought Luis' son Gabriel was a bit spoiled and selfish, also a sign of the times?

Judith was an amazing woman who had to make some extraordinary choices in order to make her way in a man's world, and I admire her so much for what she did and the choices she made.  She is a woman I would have loved to sit down and share a cup of tea with and discuss love and life as she would be someone who would have something interesting to say. 

I loved the historical setting of this novel and would recommend By Fire, By Water to anyone who is interested in reading about powerful events that have shaped our current world and the people who have helped shape them.  Did I mention that Cristobal Colon is also a good friend of Santangel and plays an important role in this story?  By Fire, By Water is an excellent debut novel by Mitchell James Kaplan.


  1. I love when history reveals a truth starker than fiction. And when we put that history into a novel, it creates a wonderful mix of reality and untold stories that could truly be a part of reality. It is also nice to know some historical fiction books that are more timeless, than bent on a certain time. The Scorpion's Bite by Aileen G. Baron proves to be one of those historical fiction novels in that class. Though the story takes place in the Trans-Jordan Desert in a not-so-distant time, I believe it would connect to By Fire, By Water in its timelessness.