Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Review by JD: By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan

  Kaplan_By Fire By Water

 A very moving historical novel set in 15th Century Spain.

John’s Thoughts:   Set in fifteenth century Spain, this is a very moving and illuminating novel which is based on a solid foundation of historical facts. Apart from being a good read, it prompted me to dig a bit more into the history of that time, which turned out to be both interesting and rather surprising – to me at least.

Essentially four major events happened in Spain at the same time – the Spanish Inquisition came to a head (though it actually lasted for over 350 years); the Spanish finally defeated the Moors and returned the whole Iberian peninsula to Christianity; there was a mass expulsion of Jews from the country; and Christopher Columbus set sail across the Atlantic and reached the Americas.

Kaplan does a fine job of weaving these four events together and making them revolve around a central character, Luis de Santangel, who is a powerful chancellor and a friend of King Ferdinand. Despite being wealthy, powerful and well connected, Santangel becomes a target of the Inquisition. In a quest for religious purity the Inquisition employs truly horrific methods to help achieve their goals. They are particularly zealous in targeting “Conversos”, people who have converted from Judaism to Christianity or whose forefathers converted. They believe that many Conversos are either playacting or are at risk of being tempted back to Judaism. Santangel himself is a third generation Christian and the Inquisitor General, Tomas de Torquemada, is determined to bring him down. Initially frustrated by Santangel’s position of power, Torquemada gets at him by attacking his family and friends.

Meanwhile, once the last Moorish stronghold in Granada is defeated, the Inquisition finally convinces King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel to expel every single Jew from the country, unless they agree to be baptized and to adopt the Christian religion. Given that there was little doubt that new Conversos would continue to be targeted by the Inquisition, countless thousands of Jews chose expulsion and were forced to leave most of their wealth behind.

To help tie the historic threads together, Kaplan has Santangel develop a love interest with a beautiful Jewish woman living in Granada. While he knows that public knowledge of any relationship with a Jewish woman would put him at the mercy of the Inquisition, his disgust at their activities finally pushes him to overcome his paranoia. But can he reconnect with her before she flees the country?

And what of Christopher Columbus? He is a long-time friend of Santangel and has been trying to persuade him to use his royal connections to get funding for an expedition to find the new world. What at first seems like a crazy idea might just turn out to the best way for Santangel to strengthen his position at the royal court and protect him from the Inquisition.

Not only was this an enjoyable read, but I learnt a lot about historic events that I’d only been dimly aware of. Previously I’d had no idea that the Spanish Inquisition, in its first decades, was primarily targeting conversos accused of practicing Judaism, and I knew nothing of the Jewish expulsion from Spain. I suppose I’d have to say that the story is a little contrived in the way that it brings together the four major historic events, but Kaplan carries it off well. I was dying for something bad to happen to Torquemada, but I guess history just didn’t work out that way. I’d also have liked to read more about Columbus and his expedition. I’m not sure how much of the character is factual and how much is Kaplan’s invention, but he comes across as an intriguing person. Maybe that is being saved up for another novel.

Overall I’d rate this 4 stars and I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.


  • By Fire, By Water
  • by Mitchell James Kaplan
  • ISBN: 978-1-59051-352-1
  • Pages 277: paperback
  • Other Press, 2010

For more information on this title as well as a GIVE AWAY of this gorgeous book please link to the preview giveaway post for By Fire, By Water. Please stay tuned for the giveaway announcement combined with an author guest post where Mitchell Kaplan tells of the amazing process about how he came to write this intriguing story.

As always all comments for this review will be addressed by John aka JD. So don’t forget to check the follow up box.

Thanks for reading Layers of Thought.


Simcha said...

This sounds like a really interesting book. I had actually learned quite a lot about the Spanish expulsion in school (though most of Jewish history involves us getting expelled from one place or another) and this is a subject that I've been thinking a lot about lately because I've been meeting quite a few people who are descendants of those converses from Spain and who are only now discovering that they are actually Jewish. Most of the Conversos were actually only pretending to convert while secretly practicing Judaism at home and although over time the families forgot about their Jewish roots they did cling to certain practices stemming from Judaism, though they didn't realize why they do them. Today many decedents of Conversos are identified by these traditions that they keep, back from the days of the Spanish expulsion (lighting candles on Fridays, not mixing milk with meat and I've met a few of them who are now making their way back to Judaism. Anyhow, it's a really interesting subject.

John D said...

Hi Simcha. That's fascinating. Isn't it incredible how some customs can be passed down over many generations, and yet people don't know what they really mean or why they do those things.

You might really enjoy this book.

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