Monday, February 13, 2012

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan

I love historical fiction that can take me out of the here and now and completely immerse me in another time and place – even when that time and place is a frightening place to be. I’ve just finished By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan. This moving novel, set in fifteenth century Spain, follows the harrowing experiences and tumbling fortunes of Luis Santangel, the chancellor of the court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel.

Luis Santangel is extraordinarily wealthy and, as chancellor, enjoys the friendship (loosely defined as mutual back-scratching) of the king. Santangel is also an intellectual, curious about religion and philosophy, who is seeking the bigger questions in life. This may or may not be related to the fact that he is a converso, meaning he is a Christian of Jewish heritage. (He did not convert to Christianity. His grandfather converted. He was brought up Christian. However, there are some foggy memories of Jewish ritual from his childhood that come into play.) Santangel is aware of, and concerned by, things that are being done by the Inquisition. At first he seems to hope that his own influence will be a protective shield around those in his immediate sphere and he tries not to involve himself. But as the reach of the Inquisition expands, Santangel and the reader know that things are going to go from bad to worse. Santangel is forced to confront his own identity, his own priorities, and the limits of his own power.

The novel shows us Spain during the Inquisition from multiple viewpoints: Santangel and those close to him, Torquemada, even glimpses from the king’s and queen’s eyes. Christopher Columbus plays an important role in the novel. (Santangel was crucial in introducing Columbus to the court.) It’s fascinating to see Columbus as a cog in the larger wheel rather than as the star of a New World-centered tale of the times. Finally, we are introduced to a mature and sensitive woman, Judith Migdal, who is making her difficult way in the Jewish community in Granada. The love story between Santangel and Judith is beautiful and believable. It adds additional poignancy to an already strongly emotional tale. I suppose any story about the Spanish Inquisition is bound to be emotionally draining, but not every difficult story is as rewarding as By Fire By Water.

This is a historical fiction challenge book. (Check out Historical Tapestries to participate or just to see what other historical novels are being read!) I’m also challenge double-dipping and counting it for my Mount TBR challenge. (Hosted by My Reader’s Block.) I picked this book up at the Historical Novel Society Conference last June. I got quite a few books at the conference and am excited to read all of them, but I’ve been slow to get to the pile. I particularly wanted to read this one because I don’t often read about Spain and I figured it was about time I did. I was right!


  1. This sounds like a perfect book for me. Love your description. It's on my list. Thanks!

  2. Like Annette, I think this sounds perfect, and it's gone on my list too :)

  3. I really liked this one too, I was really impressed with the writing and I am looking forward to more books from Mitchell James Kaplan.

  4. Fantastic review! This is one of my favorite books.

  5. Wonderful review. I loved this book!