Saturday, December 11, 2010

My take on: By Fire, By Water

"A person was not merely a soul or Platonic abstraction. A person was a web of relationships with social and religious groups, with society as a whole, with God. To change these affiliations was to alter one's being. To sever them was to destroy oneself." Pg. 243

I could not agree more with that passage from By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan. There are so many facets that make us who we are. Family, religion, social status, etc. If it's all take away, who are we? What do you do when you're faced with losing the life you've created? How far would you be willing to go? Would you lie? Steal? Resort to violence? Those are some of the many questions surrounding the characters in this book.

The novel opens in 1487, just before the alleged discovery of the New World by a certain sailor, in Zaragoza, Spain. King Fernando and Queen Ysabel have plans to take over neighboring regions, creating a united Christian front. All the Jews must be cast out. What is foreign is not welcome, but this quest seemed to be more about winning and power, than about religious unity. The King and Queen fed into the belief that Jews were out to destroy Christians. Caught in the middle is their main confidant, Chancellor Luis de Santangel.

Luis is of Jewish descent, but has long since removed himself of that world and become a Christian. He denies that part of himself loud enough for others to hear. But there reaches a point when Luis can no longer live in denial. Sacred Hebrew texts are passed along to him, and the pull to explore their meaning becomes too great. But this exploration proves costly not just for Luis and his son Gabriel and brother Estefan, but for his friends. A loyal friend is tortured to death, and rampant paranoia ensues. Has someone discovered Luis' secret? Who? Will he be persecuted for it? Who can he trust? Who is truly his friend? A plan to keep his secret quiet has deadly consequences, and he must decide which side of the fence he is on.

Meanwhile in Granada, Jewish people enjoy freedoms that are unavailable in neighboring regions (Castile and Aragon). The freedom to be who they are, provided they stay in their part of town. But even that becomes threatened when the King and Queen set their sights on Granada. Silversmith Judith Midgal, a Jewish maiden, is left with the responsibility of providing for her family. But who wants to buy silver from a woman? An unmarried woman! But Judith proves to be a very strong character. She found ways to provide for her family, while still helping others. She held strong to her beliefs. It's her character that attracts Luis when he visits Granada. She's Jewish, he is Christian how can it ever work? Who would be accepting of such a relationship? Or is one willing to give up their faith for the other?

Fifteenth century Spain was certainly a turbulent time, and it really comes through in Kaplan's writing. You easily get caught up in the narrative, at times forgetting this is historical fiction. There are many subplots but the all weave together seamlessly. Even Cristobal Colon a.k.a Christoper Columbus has a role in this, too. Only he comes across more human, than I can remember ever reading about. He comes across as a loyal friend and hopeful sailor. A war fought under the guise of religious unity only served to destroy societies, families and friendships, while providing the King and Queen with a sense of pride and power. The King and Queen are forcing others to believe what they believed. But who are they to say what a person can believe. And if you don't you will pay for it. Sometimes it was with fear and with torture. The torture scenes are very vivid and you can feel the despair in the characters.

If you're a fan of historical fiction, this one should be on your list.

Rating: Superb

Notes: I received a copy of the book from the publisher at the author's request. For more information on author Mitchell James Kaplan visit:


  1. Great review and a book right up my alley. I tweeted it to my following (which would have been much easier if you had your social networking buttons activated).

  2. Thanks for the tweet. I had the twitter button once before but it just looked awkward in my sidebar, so I decided to go without it.

  3. So glad to read that you liked this -- this is definitely one that I enjoyed as well. The history alone is so critical to not forget and than when you combine it with the story that Kaplan weaves -- priceless. Really, really liked this one! Great review!

  4. Thanks. Sometimes I shy away from historical fiction. In some books the history takes over the plot, but I'm glad that wasn't the case here.