“We must recover that book. The log of his testimony.” Turning back to the priest, he affirmed aloud what they both knew. “And the canon, he must die. Pedro de Arbues,” he nodded slowly, “must die before he destroys you, me, and our associates.”
Caceres lowered his voice. “I know the man to do it. A horseman. A Basque. A skilled assassin.”
They looked into each other’s eyes. It occurred to Santangel that if he had ever felt anything akin to Christian love, it was in this moment, in their shared hatred. – from By Fire, By Water, page 74 –
Mitchell James Kaplan’s debut novel is set in fifteenth century Spain during the time of the New Inquisition when King Fernando and Queen Ysabel were waging war and expelling all Jews from Spain. This period is also remembered for Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) and his discovery of the Western Hemisphere. Kaplan has taken all of these events and created an historical novel of depth, passion and faith which held me spellbound.
Luis de Santangel, a converso (the Spanish term which designates a person whose parents or grandparents abandoned their Jewish faith and embraced Christianity…usually under duress) and chancellor to the throne, takes center stage in By Fire, By Water. Horrified by what the Inquisition is doing, Luis finds himself deeply conflicted by his Christian faith. He longs to understand the differences between the Jewish and Christian beliefs. This struggle leads him to engage in secret meetings with a Jewish scribe and several others to learn more about the faith his family abandoned.
With Abram Serero, Luis de Santangel explored ideas that had intrigued him all his life. He argued about the nature of truth, God’s role in history, justice, and love. He came to feel an intellectual enfranchisement he had never felt before, invigorating and empowering. The freedom to navigate between the great ideas and sentiments of his own faith and that of his grandfather was a rare privilege. – from By Fire, By Water, page 52 –
When a close friend is arrested and dies, Luis becomes enraged at a system that punishes those who dare question the edicts and beliefs of the Church. His choice to silence the Chief Inquisitor of Aragon (Pedro de Arbues) puts his life and the lives of his family in danger.
A parallel story – that of a Jewish silversmith who is raising her orphaned nephew in the endangered city of Granada – is seamlessly inserted into the novel. Judith Migdal is a strong, inspiring character…and it is no surprise when her path crosses Luis’ as the Spanish war machine grinds ever closer to her home.
By Fire, By Water closely follows the historical record, but it is also very much a novel…bringing to life the streets of fifteenth century Spain, the horrors of the Inquisition (Kaplan does not spare readers the brutal torture endured by those arrested), and the drama of the time period when new lands were being discovered by sea exploration.
Big, passionate, brilliantly written, full of court intrigue and religious politics, I loved this novel. I read the last half of the book in one afternoon, unable to lay it aside until I knew what would happen. Kaplan’s descriptions are gorgeous. He effortlessly transports the reader into the past. He also brings forth the questions of the time: What were the motivations of King Fernando and Queen Ysabel? Were they simply religious fanatics, or were financial considerations the primary reason for supporting the Inquisition and the ultimate expulsion of the Jews from Spain?
Kaplan writes in his author’s note at the end of the book:
The purpose of a historical novel is to locate and reveal the dramatic core of history.
If that is the purpose, then I would congratulate Kaplan on achieving it. By Fire, By Water is a must read for historical fiction fans, especially those interested in fifteenth century Spain.
FTC Disclosure: I received this from the publisher for review on my blog.