March 12, 2012

A History of Conversion • By Fire, By Water

By Fire, By Water book cover
By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan
Publisher: Other Press
Publication Date: May 18, 2010
Source/Format: Publisher (Thanks!) || Paperback
[I received this from the publisher. This in no way affects my review.]

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.

It has been quite some time since I last read a work of historical fiction that was not a historical romance. It's actually quite fun for me to read this particular genre, as I've always been fascinated by history (to the point where I almost minored in it in college). When I was approached to check out this novel, I was immediately intrigued. And I'm glad I decided to review it. With undertones of religion, oppression and a particularly conflicted time in history, By Fire, By Water proved to be equal parts fascinating, horrific and educational.

The Character

Luis de Santangel is the character we follow for most of the novel's duration - and he is as complex as they come. Being dubbed a third generation converso (someone who converted from Judaism to Christianity), he is one of the king's most influential advisers and is strictly against the idea of the Inquisition (wherein those who are NOT Christians are targeted) for the torture and injustice that it often spawns. It was interesting following along in his journey as he attempts to do right by his position, all while learning how to be honest with himself and dealing with the traumas of the Inquisition on his family.

The Story

The big appeal of this novel is its story. Even now, a week or two after finishing it, I'm still in complete awe of it. Taking the Inquisition, a period in history which had similar processes and results as the Jewish Holocaust, and detailing it for readers without skipping over the brutality was a risky move - but I believe Kaplan does it very well.

The author tells us the tale from two different perspectives - that of Luis de Santangel and that of Judith, a Jew who is struggling to provide for her family. It's interesting to watch the turn of events as the Inquisition presses on from both points of view, as you get an in-depth idea of what's going on for each side during this struggle.

Though the brutality was horrifying at times, I could sense the truthfulness in the tale while I was reading the novel. It always amazes me when an author is able to take details from history and fashion them into a tale that is captivating and honest with very strong story-telling.

Personally, I say you should...

Read this book if you're a fan of historical fiction that focuses on major historical events. While this is clearly a departure from the novels I normally read, I found it to be an interesting, thought-provoking story that combined elements of history and questions of faith. It was certainly something I really enjoyed reading.


  1. Wow, that does sound interesting. I can't say that I have ever read a book set during The Inquisition.

  2. I hadn't either, at least prior to this, but it was really pretty cool.


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