Wednesday, January 19, 2011

By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan

                               Portion of the Goodreads description: 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.

The book started out a little confusing for me as I acclimated myself to the foreign names. Folks with more experience in historical fiction probably don't blink an eye when Christopher Columbus is referred to as Cristobal Colon but details like that stop me dead in my tracks for a minute as I think, "Is that Columbus? I know I've read something else where this name was spelled this way...what was that?"  I was grateful for the map of places at the front because that really helped me to orient myself as well. That confused stage of reading didn't last long before I was swept away by the characters and their stories. Kaplan does a great job bringing characters to life through his descriptions.  I've mentioned before that I am not somone who sees books come alive in my head, I read all of the Hunger Games trilogy but couldn't tell you what color Katniss' hair is supposed to be but Kaplan managed to conjure up some visuals for me. He describes Columbus/Colon as pushing, "his wavy mane, the color of wheat mixed with ash, back from his forehead" and I saw it happening. Those clear images were a treat when he was describing a romantic encounter or a dashing explorer, they were equally vivid but less appealing when he was describing the tortures of the Inquisition. The injustice of the Inquisition and the atrocities carried out in the name of God are all important elements of this time in history but hard to read about as a Catholic. The Inquisition is so appalling and I felt ashamed of my Church's history as I read. (On a side note, later the same day I found some comfort reading The Faith Club when one of the authors discussing the public perception of Islam said something along the lines of , "You wouldn't judge the whole Catholic Church based on the Inquisition.") There was a lot of history packed into this book. I was amazed that Kaplan's first book could be such a beautiful blend of fact and story. I never felt like he was lecturing  me about the time period, it was simply unfolding naturally as part of the story. That is probably the key point about whether a work of historical fiction is good or not for the average reader - the ability to make the facts come alive within the narrative. Kaplan does it beautifully and I think anyone who enjoys historical fiction will love the book.

I received this book from the author, Mitchell James Kaplan. When he contacted me, I had already read good reviews on other blogs so wasn't too worried but did have this little niggle of fear, "What if I don't like it? What would I say?"  I needn't have feared, I thoroughly enjoyed By Fire, By Water. It did, however, firm up the notion that my blog is just for posting about and talking about books - I am not a skilled book reviewer. Times like these I wish I were more articulate so I could do justice to a beautiful book, but I'm just not.

This is my first book for the Historical Fiction Challenge 2011 hosted by the ladies at Historical Tapestry.


Gerbera Daisy Mom said...

I agree...I was confused thru the first part of the book, and althougth I didn't LOVE it like the reviews I've read, I did appreciate it. A solid piece of historical fiction.

bermudaonion said...

I struggle with the different names too, but it sounds like this book is well worth reading! Your reviews are great, because they let us know how the book made you feel.

Julie @ Knitting and Sundries said...

This was one of my favorite books of 2010; I appreciated the narrative as well as the meticulous amount of research that went into this book. It drew me in and had me immersed almost from the start.