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

By Fire, By Water

By Fire, By Water
Mitchell James Kaplan

Description (from Publishers Weekly, via
Kaplan, a screenwriter, sets his debut novel in 15-century Spain, amid the Inquisition, the attempt to unify the kingdoms of Spain under Christian rule, and the voyage of Christopher Columbus to what the seaman expects will be the Indies. The action centers on the historical figure of Luis de Santángel, chancellor to the king of Aragon and a converso, a Jewish convert to Christianity at a time when the Inquisition sought to repress judaizing. Santángel is friend and financier of Columbus, surviving parent of young Gabriel, and more curious than is prudent about his Jewish heritage. While he learns about Judaism in clandestine meetings, a parallel story unfolds, centering on Judith Migdal, a beautiful Jewish woman who learns to become a silversmith in Granada, located in the last part of Spain under Muslim rule. Santángel’s attraction to Judith grows, even as the Inquisition closes in and the prospect of another world to the West tantalizes. Kaplan has done remarkable homework on the period and crafted a convincing and complex figure in Santángel in what is a naturally cinematic narrative and a fine debut.

When the author of By Fire, By Water, Mitchell James Kaplan, contacted me about reviewing his amazing novel set at the dawn of the Spanish Inquisition, I said yes, even though period novels really aren’t my thing, because the story intrigued me. I started reading it immediately, and loved it. I hadn’t planned for my life to go into a tailspin before I could write the review.

Still, this story, which is part history, part social commentary, and part romance, has stuck with me. It’s about religion and faith, and how they differ, and how they’re similar, but it’s also about wealth and politics and passion. The love story between Judith and Luis is poignant, but written with a lot of truth.

Maybe it’s Kaplan’s background as a screenwriter, but this book sings it’s vividness to the world. Reading it, I had such strong senses of place and time – I could see it as a movie in my head. (I could totally see this film as a Merchant Ivory production.)

This review is vague and disjointed not because I didn’t love the story – because I did. If all historical novels were this interesting and well crafted, and relevant to modern times, I’d read more of them. It’s just that I read it very quickly several months ago, and the details have blurred.

I do remember thinking, however, that if this book were a movie, the after-the-credits cookie would be a time jump to modern times and a connection to the Hidden Jews of New Mexico, or some such.

Anyway, buy this book. It’s brilliant. Epic, even.

By Fire, By Water
Mitchell James Kaplan
320 pages, Other Press, May 2010
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