Review: By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan

SYNOPSIS: 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 General Tomás de Torquemada 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.

Luis de Santangel
My Thoughts: Mitchell James Kaplan brings the horridness of the Spanish Inquisition and the desperate struggle of the Jewish people to life in his first novel, By Fire, By Water.

The main protagonist is Luis, the royal chancellor to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain and also a third generation converso. Conversos is a term for a Jewish person who has converted to Christianity, usually as a means of survival. As the Spanish Inquisition intensifies their efforts to bring all heretics into the fold (or the fire), Luis' attempts to stop them is getting nowhere and his continuous fight to hide who he really is getting more difficult by the minute. When the Inquisition rounds up his friends, Luis knows it's only a matter of time before they come after him and this is when things get really interesting! Not that the whole book isn't interesting, but this part is one of those where you're rushing to get to the next page to see what happens.

We also get to meet Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) as Luis was his main supporter and actually funded the voyage himself. Insights and philosophies into the Jewish and Christian faiths and the details of old Jewish texts were very enlightening and I felt like I came away with a lot and I always love that!

Kaplan's writing is exceptional, his intelligence and research on the subject superb. 2010 seems to be the year for new and fabulous voices in the HF world and Kaplan is no exception. I look forward to reading many more of his books in the future!

My favorite line:  "If I knew were paradise was, would I be sitting here with you?"

Many thanks to Other Press for prividing me with a copy for review.



  1. This is a wonderfully written book. Very impressive, especially for a first novel. I'd definitely pick up any future books of his.

  2. Thanks for the review does sound like a great novel. And your favorite line just made me laugh!

  3. So glad you liked this as well, the book really touched my sensitivities.

  4. I've only heard good things about this one - I'm looking forward to reading it at some point.

  5. Thank you for the review. Sounds really good.

  6. I really liked the periodic intrusions of Columbus. It made things interesting. A great job by this author tackling such a terribly sad aspect of history. Great review.


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