Monday, October 25, 2010

By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan — 320 pgs

Book CoverLiving in 15th century Spain, Luis de Santángel has just been caught in the cross-hairs of the new Inquisition. Santángel is a very wealthy and respected member of the community and also the chancellor to Fernando, the King of Aragon. But he is also a Jewish covert to Christianity, and when he begins to cast about looking for information and edification of his forgotten and displaced faith, he and his family are put into great danger. Though Santángel tries to exercise discretion and stealth in regards to his new curiosity, he attracts the attention of Thomas Torquemada, the leader of the new Inquisition, who goes to great and torturous lengths to punish both nonbelievers and those who he believes to be escaping from the fold. As Spain struggles to dominate and unify its kingdoms under severe Christian rule and Christopher Columbus petitions Ysabel and Fernando to finance a trip to the prosperous Indies, Santángel's once envious life begins to unravel. Meanwhile, Judith Migdal, a Jewish woman living in Granada, is facing her own trials. After losing half her family to tragedy, Judith must reorganize her life and learn the difficult craft of silversmithing in order to provide for the remaining family members. When a chance meeting between Santángel and Judith occurs, the two are inexplicably drawn towards one another, forcing each to examine the strength of their beliefs and the ways in which their futures may intersect. In this intricately crafted and exceptionally researched new historical novel, Kaplan brings to life a cast of characters who are caught in the craze of a dangerous religious fervor and explores the way in which those people remain true to themselves and to those that they love.

In the past few months, I have read quite a bit about the Inquisition and the effects it had on the people it persecuted. This has actually been a rather new area for me to study, and the more I'm exposed to it in the books I read, the more questions I have. What I really liked about this book was the way the repercussions for those affected were examined with great depth and sensitivity. After finally closing the book for the last time, I really felt it was the best representation of those fateful events that I could have sought out and read.

From the outset, it was clear to me that Luis de Santángel had an extremely comfortable life. Aside from his wealth and position, he had a family that loved and supported him, and I can imagine that it wasn't bad to have the king's ear and attention when he needed it. But Luis was hungering for something that he didn't have access to in his everyday life. He wanted answers about the faith that he was forced to leave behind, knowing that seeking these answers would endanger everything he held dear. I don't even think it was a matter of Luis wanting to convert back to Judaism. I think it was more a way for him to hold on to the values and ideals of his ancestors and a way for him to puzzle out some of the deeper questions he had about God. Luis' was a quest for knowledge, but in its discovery, his intentions got misconstrued and perverted. Although he tried to mitigate the disaster, the powers against him were too strong to resist successfully.

The representation of the Inquisition brought forth a lot of questions while I was reading. How does one man, or one group of men, come to believe that they can accurately police the spirituality that lives in another's soul? Indeed, what would God think about this? My religious education has taught me that God is a being of mercy and love who forgives those with sincerity in their hearts. But the Inquisitors had no room for mercy or forgiveness, and dealt with people brutally, leaving no room for those who were spiritually adrift or who questioned their faith. These men had an agenda that I believe was not from God, and I began to feel that all their punishments were only meant to dominate and subjugate those who they felt were spiritually unworthy. I can't imagine living in a time where your inner motives are constantly suspect and where another person has the right to torture you or take your life due to perceived spiritual discrepancies. It was was a shameful time, filled with shameful men who knew nothing about the love and forgiveness of God.

I also really liked the dual narrative half that focused on the life of Judith Migdal. She was a worthy heroine who embodied a clarity of purpose and an inner strength that I admired. When faced with a problem, Judith was resourceful and optimistic and she has great loyalty to those in her sphere. Pairing her with Luis also seemed like a brilliant move because both of them had similar strengths and resoluteness. Though they came from very different spiritual backgrounds, they were able to see beyond these things and get to the core of each other rather quickly. The fact that Luis became enamored of Judith was another danger that he took upon himself, but to him, this risk seemed to be of small consequence. The intertwining of these two characters gave the story an added layer of depth and resonance. I would have liked to have seen a more hopeful resolution to the story of Judith and Luis, but somehow what Kaplan did felt more realistic and faithful to the times he was describing.

Call me naïve, but it actually took me some time to figure out that the Cristobal Colon that was discussed in the narrative was none other than Christopher Columbus. It did became very clear in later sections, but for the first half of the story, it went by almost unnoticed. I liked the way that Kaplan fit Columbus into the story, and in his creation, Columbus came off as not only an adventurer but a scholar and a loyal friend. I was also surprised to learn that Luis (who was also a real historical figure) was the main financier for Columbus' trip to the Indies, and had it not been for him, the world may have been a different place today. This is one of the reasons I really enjoy well-written and researched historical fiction. It fills in the gaps in my education in a way that is inviting to read about and gives me a much more rounded and balanced picture of historical events and the way they played out.

As a reader and lover of historical fiction, I get very excited when I feel that a book has accurately and skillfully represented the times it describes. This book did that perfectly for me and I think other readers of historical fiction would also glean a great deal from it. Kaplan not only handles his history well, he also creates characters that are easy to identify with and care for, which made this book an engrossing read. The style of the writing was also very tight and fluid, which is something that earns it extra points in my book. If you are in any way interested in the events and place that Kaplan features so wonderfully in his book, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend picking up a copy and giving it a try. A great and absorbing read.

Visit the author's website here.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

What a great review! I just received this book and I'm so excited to pick it up and start devouring it!!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Wow, you loved this book! I think it was Beth Fish that did a guest post by this author...did you see it? It was fabulous, and it really made me want to read this book even though this is definitely not in my comfort zone. Great review!!

Marie Cloutier said...

Great review, Heather. I liked this book a lot too. I have interview with Kaplan coming up on my blog on Friday- I hope you'll come by. Anyway yeah, I agree like 100% with you on this!

bermudaonion said...

This book does sound amazing. It seems to me that we have an Inquisition going on in some parts of the world to this day.

Amy said...

Wow, what a glowing review! The book sounds really interesting. And how neat that you've been reading quite a number of books from the period - I love doing that :)

Suko said...

Wonderful review,as usual! The book really sounds incredible in many ways.

Wendy said...

What a terrific review of an equally terrific book...I also loved this book and felt it accurately captured the historical time. So glad you loved it!

Jenners said...

I haven't read too much about the Inquisition but from what little I know, I don't think this was motivated by a genuine concern for people's spiritual health.

Excellent and thorough review ... as always!

Melissa said...

I really enjoy HF even though I don't read too much of it. This is a newish time period to me, so I will definitely be on the lookout for a copy.

Anna said...

You just made me so happy that I didn't turn down the author's review request! I read a little about the inquisition in Watermark earlier this year, and this one sounds fascinating. Thanks for the review!

Lisa said...

If this one is the best representation of this period that you've read than this is the one for me!

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