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Review: By Fire, By Water, Mitchell James Kaplan

Luis de Santangel has risen far as a converso.  He’s the Chancellor of Aragon and an advisor to King Ferdinand; he has power, influence, and money, all anyone would need to succeed in the Middle Ages.  That’s until the Inquisition comes to town, and with it Thomas Torquemada, a priest who very much has it in for Santangel.  That’s because after years of Christianity, Santangel finds himself longing to learn about his Jewish past, about the secret rituals his parents kept, despite the danger he knows it brings to him and his family.  The threat is not an idle one, and as Santangel begins to lose those close to him, so he begins to lose the trappings of power and influence that shaped his life so clearly.

I really liked this book, and for so many reasons that I’m not sure I’m even capable of spelling them out in a review!  I haven’t read much fiction set around the Inquisition, at least not that I can think of right now; it’s a dark time, and those facing the consequences of the church’s zeal for reform faced that darkness full on.  Santangel is one such unfortunate soul; a man who simply wants to learn more about the faith of his family is destroyed piece by piece.  This is not a light-hearted, frothy novel; this is a close look at what such torture actually did to people.  It’s also a very thoughtful perspective on the need some people have for faith and spirituality; Christianity isn’t what calls to Santangel’s heart, it seems, as Judaism is at the very core of his history.

Of course, Kaplan doesn’t miss out on the suffering which practicing Jews themselves suffered.  The story’s alternate narrator is Judith, a Jewish woman who never married but now cares for her nephew and his aging grandfather, Baba Shlomo.  Grieving for the loss of her brother, Judith becomes determined to be a silversmith, the craft which Baba Shlomo and her brother both practiced.  After much persuasion, she finally attains the knowledge, only to be faced with incredible difficulties selling her ware.  Her work and travels bring her into contact with Luis de Santangel, encounters which flesh out the plot and make these two characters seem even more human.

Through Judith’s eyes, we see the intense difficulties of life for Jews under the Inquisition.  Judith and her family live in Muslim Granada, where Jews were permitted to live.  Though they’re not tortured and killed as they were under the Christians, their lives still aren’t easy, and when Ferdinand and Isabella come with their Reconquista, the Jews are left to fend for themselves.  I had actually learned about this previously in studying medieval Spain, but never had we covered so closely how it must have felt for the Jews, thrust from the land in which generations of their ancestors had lived, robbed of all their possessions, and sent away to somehow live.  Judith’s choices are many and difficult, but I sympathized with her throughout and believed what she did was the right thing.

And then, finally, there was the interesting perspective on Christopher Columbus.  My own opinion of the man is not very rosy.  I can’t forgive him the crimes he committed.  But it was nevertheless very interesting to read a depiction of him before all of that happened on his quest for funding.  I think many American children retain a bit of a fascination with Columbus; even after knowing that he was quite terrible in actuality, all the little bits about the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria that I learned in second grade still sticks in my head.  I liked how he fit in the story; I thought using such a well-known figure firmly landed the story in its historical period, for those who know little about Spain’s past, and widened it beyond a single country.

I found By Fire, By Water to be an incredibly satisfying historical novel.  It was dark, but it held me spellbound as the tale of Santangel unravelled.  I would definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction set in the late Middle Ages.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the author for review.

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