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Monday, October 11, 2010

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

By Fire, By Water, by Mitchell James Kaplan
Publisher: Other Press
Genre: Historical fiction
Trade paperback, 277 pages
Book Source: the author
My Rating: 97/100

From Goodreads:

Luis de Santángel, chancellor to the court and longtime friend of the lusty King Ferdinand, has had enough of the Spanish Inquisition. As the power of Inquisitor GeneralTomás deTorquemada grows, so does the brutality of the Spanish church and the suspicion and paranoia it inspires. When a dear friend’s demise brings the violence close to home, Santángel is enraged and takes retribution into his own hands. But he is from a family of conversos, and his Jewish heritage makes him an easy target. As Santángel witnesses the horrific persecution of his loved ones, he begins slowly to reconnect with the Jewish faith his family left behind. Feeding his curiosity about his past is his growing love for Judith Migdal, a clever and beautiful Jewish woman navigating the mounting tensions in Granada. While he struggles to decide what his reputation is worth and what he can sacrifice, one man offers him a chance he thought he’d lost…the chance to hope for a better world. Christopher Columbus has plans to discover a route to paradise, and only Luis de Santángel can help him.

Within the dramatic story lies a subtle, insightful examination of the crisis of faith at the heart of the Spanish Inquisition. Irresolvable conflict rages within the conversos in By Fire, By Water, torn between the religion they left behind and the conversion meant to ensure their safety. In this story of love, God, faith, and torture, fifteenth-century Spain comes to dazzling, engrossing life.

My Thoughts:

One should probably not say they enjoyed a book about the Spanish Inquisition, but those are my thoughts exactly.  I never read about the Inquisition before, but I had a general idea of what it was about.  Mitchell's book only brings a small slice of the Inquisition to life, but what an interesting slice he chose.

The story takes place six years before the discovery of the Americas, a time of great upheaval in the Iberian peninsula.  Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand are currently waging a holy war on two fronts: against the Muslims in Spain and against anyone not a Catholic.  The new Inquisition in Spain provides great riches to both the Spanish throne and the Church.  Anyone deemed a heretic has all of their property and possessions confiscated and given to Church and State.  Wars are costly, no?

All of the characters in Mitchell's story deal with inner turmoil and crisis, but none more so than Santangel.  He is divided and questioning himself in most of the areas of his life: family versus court duties, Judaism versus Catholicism, the memory of his wife versus Judith, a Jewish woman he has fallen for.  Santangel is a wise, learned man and the most natural thing for him to do is to discuss and debate his thoughts on religion and the state of the country.  However, to discuss and compare faiths is heresy, and threatens to stifle Santangel, until he finds others who share his interests.  This only leads to disaster and Santangel making tough decisions. 

All Santangel wants is to live in peace, in a world that is free.  And that is why Columbus' theories about a new world and trading route to India pique Santangel's interest so much.  Could it be possible that there is a land, a Paradise, where everyone is peaceful and free?  Columbus' proposed voyage is a godsend to Santangel and gives him hope that it is indeed greener on the other side.  Hope is a powerful thing.

I enjoyed this book because I was vested in Santangel.  I empathized very strongly with him, maybe because I have been questioning my faith of late.  I also thought Kaplan's characterizations of the major players of the time were also richly portrayed.  This made for a complete picture of the situation at the time in Spain.  All points of view in conjunction with their resulting inner turmoil and tension made this story a fascinating read:
  • Queen Isabella is compelled to fight this holy war against the Muslims and those who murdered Jesus.  Her faith compels her to do this.  Isabella has doubts from time to time, but in her heart she feels she is doing the right thing.  She is doing God's work.  Maybe her holy war will convince her husband to be more holy too.  (It doesn't.)
  • Father Torquemada is rooting out evil and doing the Lord's work.  This priest is so fervent in his beliefs that he "sees" a spirit who confirms that what Torquemada is doing is right and just.  The Jews put Jesus to death, and therefore their religion is wrong.  Any means necessary must be utilized to ferret out those who don't believe in Jesus and his church.  Torture of the human body only purifies the soul.  I did get a sense that Torquemada may have wrestled with some guilt over his actions of torture.  However, he then realized that some of the fortune he confiscated would go towards building a beautiful abbey for the glory of God, so it's all good in the end.
  • Gabriel, Santangel's son, wants to be the good son his father wants him to be, however his father isn't around much.  The things his father taught him start to fade away, and Gabriel must find his own way when faced with a terrible choice.  Gabriel survives the best way he can, and no one can fault his choice.
  • The Muslims in Granada would like to be left alone, but this is not to be.  Muslims respect other faiths and allow them to live and work within their communities, as long as they abide by the rules of the city.  Muslims accept people for who they are and respect all faiths.  Unfortunately the Catholics do not.
  • Judith Migdal never having experienced the Inquisition does not know what she is in store for.  Once Granada is conquered and all things reconsecrated for God, Judith must leave the life she has built for herself.  Although not easy for her, Judith was lucky enough to have lived with people who were accepting.
  • King Ferdinand...well he is just looking for more wealth, power, women, and wars.  Not much there.
  • Columbus just wants someone to finance his voyage to "India."
For many people, religion is so much more than mere faith. It is a person's culture, their way of life and family.  This book demonstrated how tight the ties between faith and family are.  It also demonstrated what harmony among various faiths could be with the discussions and depiction of life in Granada.  No one faith is better.  We are searching for the same thing, just maybe taking a different route.
This book was so well written and the topic, although gruesome at times, was beautifully depicted.  This story also pointed out my lack of knowledge about Spain's history, and that of the Muslims too.  I totally enjoyed this book and I look forward to reading more from this amazing writer. 

Thanks to Mitchell for sending me a copy of this book.  Although this book is historical fiction, it is not something I would normally be drawn to.  I was pleasantly surprised.  Thanks for expanding my horizons.
For more information please visit the author's website.
Be sure to stop by tomorrow for the remainder of my interview with Mitchell.  The first part can be found here.

2010 Challenges Met: 100+, Historical Fiction,


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