Friday, October 22, 2010

By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan

Book synopsis from the publisher's, Other Press, website:

By Fire, By WaterLuis 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.
When I first heard of By Fire, By Water, I was instantly drawn in and knew I needed to read it. I finally got to meet Mr. Kaplan at this year's BEA and seeing how nice of a person he is made me want to read his debut historical novel even more. (I know, I know, the decision to read a book shouldn't be contingent upon a personality of a writer, but if you're honest with yourself, it really does make a difference). But then I started to worry a little, thinking what would happen if I didn't like the book, if it didn't live up to the hype it was already getting. let me just tell you this (and I'm sure for most of you, it's not a surprise), I needn't have worried at all.

I got immersed in the story of Luis, in the story of Migdal, and in the intrigues and cruelties of Inquisition, completely and irrevocably. What a breath of fresh air By Fire, By Water is! Not only is it historically accurate (as far as I could tell and confirm) but it's most importantly told in a convincing and interesting way, especially the parts that cannot of necessity be ever confirmed to be accurate or not. This book reads like a best adventure novel (even though it isn't, per se) with action flowing smoothly and everything falling into place at the right time. But I was most surprised at the emotional value By Fire, By Water has. I admit to not having read many books on Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition or on the ordeal of the Jewish people in said times. Mr. Kaplan has definitely sparked a fire in me to keep reading on and to find out as much as possible. And isn't that the ultimate purpose of historical fiction? For me, it is. If after I'm finished with a book I'm pulled into the world the author created and intrigued enough to find out more, I consider the book the ultimate success.

Mitchell Kaplan's By Fire, By Water is such a success. It's a perfect historical novel for both the readers who just want to try this genre out and the 'old pros'. There isn't a dull moment there, the writing is lyrical and almost every sentence engaging. It's truly a book worthy of a spot in your personal libraries.