Friday, November 26, 2010

REVIEW: By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan

By Fire, By Water takes us to 15th century Spain, a place full of religious strife as Ysabel and Ferdinand seek to unite the country under Christian rule. A once peaceful populace now lives in fear of the machinations of the Inquisition led by Queen Ysabel’s confessor Tomas de Torquemada. Innocent men, women, and children are being outed as conversos-Jewish converts to Christianity-and subjected to violent ends by the Inquisition. Luis de Santagel, chancellor to Ysabel and Ferdinand is one such converso. Santagel is content to play the role of good subject until an important and dangerous Jewish text comes into his hands through a chance meeting with sea Captain Cristobol Colon and sparks his curiosity about his lost faith. Santagel and a few other equally curious associates seek to learn more but one of their number falls into the hands of the Inquisition. In order to keep the existence of the text a secret they orchestrate the murder of the local Inquisitor. Soon the Inquisition is on their trail as Tomas de Torquemada seeks to bring the influential Santagel down by taking away everyone close to him. Aided by Cristobal Colon, Santagel seeks to save those he loves and himself from the unstoppable Inquisition. Complicating matters is his blossoming love for Judith Migdal, a Jewess silver maker whom he meets in his travels.

This is my first foray into historical fiction dealing with the Inquisition and what a fantastic portrayal of this period in history this book was! The book, which starts off with Santagel cradling the emaciated form of his brother who has been held captive by the Inquisitors, captured me from the very beginning. The novel then goes back in time to tell how this scene came about. Mitchell James Kaplan paints a stirring picture of this turbulent time in history where no one is safe from the zeal of the Spanish Inquisition. The horrifying injustices meted out at the hands of the Inquisitors in the name of religion are really brought to life in the form of Santagel and his struggle to protect the woman he loves and save his brother and son from the clutches of Torquemada. As one of the most powerful men in the country, you would think that Luis de Santagel would be out of the reach these fanatics, but that obviously proves to not be the case. I literally cringed at some of the descriptions of the torture methods and punishments used by the church in an effort to extract confessions.

The subplots involving a passionate Cristobol Colon who dreams of sailing to the “Indies” and Judith Migdal, Santagel’s spirited love interest, add additional color to a main story that was already strong on its own. As always, when I don’t know much about the period in history I am reading about, I do some research when completing a novel to gauge its historical accuracy. It is evident that the author did his homework here. Well researched, and beautifully told, what more can a reader ask for? This book captivated me from beginning to end and this is his debut! What a wonderful maiden voyage into the writing realm. I look forward to his next effort.

This book was provided to me for review by the publisher, however I received no compensation for this review and these are my honest thoughts on the book.


  1. I keep hearing good things about this one - I really need to get a copy of it!

  2. This sounds like a really good book that I'm going to have to check out!

  3. I liked your review and have ventured into this time period before and found myself pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed it!!

  4. I absolutely loved this book, and I also found that I Googled so much since I didn't really know much about this history. Fascinating and very well written book -- wonderful review as well.