By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan

It is nearing the end of the 15th century, and Luis de Santangel is the chancellor to the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Ysabel.  The Inquisition has made its way to Spain, and many Jewish people are in fear for their lives.  de Santangel is a converso – of Jewish heritage, but converted to Christianity.  He develops an interest in the religion of his ancestors – partly due to an ancient parchment which Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) delivers to him – and in doing so, puts himself, his family, and friends who share his interest, in great danger.  Tomas de Torquemada, the leader of the Inquisition becomes interested in de Santangel, and will go to any means necessary to capture him.  While de Santangel’s position in the Kings Court may afford him some protection, he is well aware that there is a limit to such protection.

Meanwhile, Judith Migdal is a Jewish lady living in Granada.  Mourning the loss of her brother and his wife, she takes on the role of looking after the wife’s father and her brother’s son.  She determines to carry on the silversmith business which her brother had built up, but soon finds herself navigating a difficult landscape as she sees the persecution of Jews and the dangerous times which they will all be facing.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.  Initially I thought it might be hard going, but instead it was utterly absorbing and interesting.  There is tremendous detail regarding the Inquisition, the instability of the times and the lives and cultures of people living in Spain at the time – it is clear that the author must have conducted extensive research.  However, the book does not become bogged down with detail – the writing serves to help immerse the reader into the atmosphere in which the story is set, with the sights and sounds almost seeping out of the pages.

The somewhat explicit detailing of the torture and punishment inflicted on the Jewish people leaves little to the imagination, and at times made for uncomfortable reading.

Luis was a very well drawn character.  I felt that throughout the book, the reader really got to know him very well.  He was clearly an intelligent man in a position of privilege, who commanded respect.  However, his life of comfort was not enough to stop him asking questions about the motivations of the Inquisition, and his own family history.  Judith was also a wonderful character.  She was strong and determined, because she had no choice but to be.  I felt that the author really allowed the reader to see into these people’s lives and thoughts.

I really think that there are two stories contained in the book; that of Luis de Santagel and the events which take place and which draw Judith Migdal into his orbit; and that of an unstable period of time when people were scared for their lives, practised their religion in private and were never sure who they could trust.  Both stories are equally enjoyable.  The integration of Christopher Columbus (prior to his most famous voyage) was interesting reading.  Although Columbus does not appear in the book a great deal, he does play an important role.

Overall, this book is highly recommended – fantastically researched, very well written and fascinating.  I would especially recommend it to fans of historical fiction, or anybody with even a passing interest in this period of history.  It certainly inspired me to find out more about the Inquisition, and Luis de Santangel himself.

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