Monday, February 27, 2012

Review: By Fire By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan

By Fire, By WaterLuis de Santangel is the Chancellor to King Fernando and Queen Ysabel of Castille and Aragon but even his position will not keep him safe from the clutches of the New Inquisition and their quest to seek out and destroy those with Jewish heritage. Judith Migdal is an unmarried woman taking care of an elderly relative and her young nephew. After her sister and her husband die she must learn to become a silversmith to support her family in the Jewish quarter of Granada. Cristobal Colon's greatest dream is to reach India and Jerusalem by sea and he will dedicate his life to accomplishing it. History brought these people together and they will change each other's lives forever.

I am absolutely delighted to tell you about this book because this is one of those rare reads where everything is just right. A while back the author contacted me asking for a review of his debut novel and having never read anything set in Spain of that era I decided to give it a try. Reading it last week I congratulated myself on this decision more than once. This is an intelligent, well-written novel that combines drama, history, politics and, to a lesser degree, romance.
I really enjoyed the characters of the honorable Luis de Santangel, the resilient Judith, and the supporting cast who all played a role in the events. Sometimes it would seem that a completely new character was introduced for no observable reason but then time would pass and this seemingly-insignificant character's contribution would become obvious, be it to further the plot, make the setting more vivid, or aid in the development of the main characters. No character arc was left incomplete and seeing them all develop was deeply satisfying.
This isn't really a straightforward set the goal - overcome difficulties - achieve the goal type of novel. Cristobal Colon's endeavor to obtain the monarchs' support in sailing to India is a secondary plot. It is the life of Luis de Santangel and his struggle with his heritage at a time when practicing anything other than Christianity was a sure way to the stake is at the foreground of this story. The life of Judith and her family provides an excellent contrast by giving us a glimpse of a life the Jewish community had in Muslim Granada.
Mr. Kaplan spent six years doing research for this book and the work he's done brings a lot of credibility to the novel. The details shine through on every page and fortunately he didn't let history and theological debate overpower the story, at the end of the day it was still about Luis, Judith and their loved ones.
Usually at this point I talk about things that didn't work for me. Today there isn't anything for me to say. Go get this book. Read it. Enjoy it. This is a quality novel that is worth reading regardless of whether you're a fan of historical fiction or not.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a winner! I'm excited to hear what you have to say about 'While I'm Still Myself'. I read it awhile ago.