By Fire, By Water – Book Review

“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.

Highly recommended.

FTC Disclosure: I received this from the publisher for review on my blog.

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  1. This sounds good. I really enjoy Historical Fiction reads and have been craving one lately. 🙂

  2. Oooh, this sounds good! I’d already wish-listed it but shall certainly be on the look-out for a copy having read your review.

    • Andi on July 12, 2010 at 09:25

    This one sounds fantastic. I stumbled into reading about this time period in one of Alice Hoffman’s YA novels, and I’ve wanted to revisit it. Thanks for the rec!

  3. Oh, this does sound like a wonderful book! I have recently been reading a little bit about the Inquisition, and think this book would dovetail what I’ve read very nicely. Fantastic review, I am so glad you loved it!

    • Staci on July 12, 2010 at 13:48

    Sounds like one that just needs to be read to be fully appreciated!

  4. Sounds really awesome. I love this period of history and I adore Spain. I would travel back there again and again. Loved your review. Thanks.

  5. So glad to hear how fantastic this is! I accepted a review copy just the other day but was sort of on the fence about it, now I’m excited to get to it! Thanks.

    • EL Fay on July 12, 2010 at 16:46

    I heard there’s talk about making Queen Isabel a saint. I don’t know if it’s true but I sure hope not.

  6. This sounds like a historical fiction book that I could learn some history from. Fantastic review!

  7. What a lovely review! This is a time period that has always fascinated me….I’ll add it to my list.

    • Alyce on July 17, 2010 at 08:35

    I can’t imagine what it would have been like to live in a time like that, where even questioning religious beliefs could be dangerous. Of course saying that reminds me that there are still places in the world where it is dangerous to question the established religion (or politics). And that goodness I live when and where I do now.

    This does look like a great read! Nice review!

    • Wendy on July 17, 2010 at 20:05

    Sheila: This is stellar historical fiction – hope you’ll enjoy it.

    L Clare: I hope to be doing a giveaway soon for this one…keep an eye out 🙂

    Andi: you’re welcome -hope you’ll love it as I did 🙂

    Zibilee: It gives a real picture of the Inquisition which I think you will find interesting!

    Staci: Yup 🙂

    Wisteria: You’re welcome – this sounds like your kind of book!!!!

    Heather: Oh, I hope you love it. I’ll look forward to your review!

    El Fay: Ewww! Really??!? She just seemed so pompous and holier than thou…yuck.

    Kathy: I know I learned a lot from it. Kaplan obviously did his research well.

    Michele: Thank you 🙂 Hope you’ll get a chance to read it too.

    Alyce: Yes, this kind of book makes me very glad that I did not live in that time period, and that I don’t live in a country which does not allow religious freedom.

  8. I’m psyched because I am getting a copy of this. Terrific review….love this about the book
    “He effortlessly transports the reader into the past.”

    • Wendy on July 26, 2010 at 06:53

    Wisteria: Lucky you!!! Hope you love it as I did 🙂

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