By Fire, By Water

By Fire, By Water

by Mitchell James Kaplan

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By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan

Recipient of the Independent Publishers Award for Historical Fiction (Gold Medal), the Foreword Book of the Year Award for Historical Fiction (Bronze Medal), and an honorable mention in the category of General Fiction for the Eric Hoffer Award.

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781590513576
Publisher: Other Press, LLC
Publication date: 05/18/2010
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 460
Sales rank: 1,184,042
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Mitchell James Kaplan has lived and worked primarily in Paris and Los Angeles as a translator, screenwriter, and script consultant. Currently, he resides in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, with his wife and two children. This is his first novel.

Read an Excerpt

“I’ve had time to think,” explained Santángel. “I’ve done a great deal of thinking.
Praying. Remembering.” He glanced at the slate-gray sea. “I spent hours, calling
up every detail.” He delicately ran his hand along the rim of her ear, down her
cheek, under her jaw. “From the first words I heard you pronounce...”
   She removed his hand from her face, but held his forearm. “What were they?”
   “Allah alone conquers. The inscription on those beakers you made for the
   “Yes.” She nodded with a nostalgic smile. “Allah alone conquers. Even the
most powerful of us, we have little control over our destiny.”
   “Then our only choice is to embrace that destiny.”
   “Embrace it? Look around, Chancellor. Look around.”
Exiles all around them, some emaciated from long travels, many filthy, tried
to board ships, pleaded with sailors, appealed to authorities. As he observed all
this despair, Luis de Santángel felt more powerless than ever. His mind reviewed
his years in the royal court—the perfidy of some, the loyalty of others, the
sacrifices, the battles, the triumphs, the fears, the losses. For what good?
   “No, Chancellor. Our only choice,” said Judith, “is not to embrace our
destiny in this world, but to hope for a better world.” Her eyes glided to the galleon behind him.
   “Then I shall accompany you into that world.”

Reading Group Guide

1. What did you know about the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834) prior to reading By Fire, By Water? How did this story influence or increase your understanding of this historical period? 

2. In By Fire, By Water, trusting someone can lead to life or death. Discuss the various relationships in the novel that lead to both. What kind of trust do the characters have in God? How does trust vary depending on the character's social class or religious beliefs? 

3. How do the female characters, living in a strongly patriarchal society, acquiesce to or rebel against their culture's expectations of them? How does Judith break the mold for female behavior in her community? What about Judith catches Santángel's eye, and later compels him to seek her out?

4. What kind of a father is Santángel? Early in the novel, he tells his son a story about a man with a "great treasure" who is unable to show it to anyone (pages 30-31). To what is this story alluding? Do you think Gabriel really believed his father was unfaithful to the church or was Gabriel trying to protect his father by staying away from him? 

5. What compels Santángel to learn about the Jewish faith? What is each group member's purpose for joining his secret religious meetings? How does the small group help, support, or hurt its members?

6. Discuss the significance of the novel's title, By Fire, By Water.

7. The death of Felipe, Santángel's assistant, in many ways acts as a catalyst. Why do you think this is the breaking point for Santángel? How does his secretary's death affect his faith? 

8. Why do you think Leonor, Felipe's wife, feels so protective of Santángel when he is the one who allowed Felipe to join the secret group, and thus, is partially to blame for her husband's death?

9. On page 97, Judith loses Levi for an afternoon and, in her search and worrying, reassures herself that, "History never repeats itself." Do you find evidence in the novel to support this claim?

10. What was your impression of King Fernando and Queen Ysabel? How do the monarchs differ from Granada's emir? What do they have in common?

11. What influence do religious leaders hold over the king and queen? How does this influence differ from that of Santángel and his money? Do you think any religious leaders have that sort of power today?

12. Letter writing, transcription, and written history play an enormous part in the novel. In what ways do characters use written communication to help them? In what ways does it haunt them?

13. What was your first impression of Estefan, Santángel's brother? How do the brothers' personalities and actions bring them to such different places in their lives?

14. How did the author's depiction of Cristóbal Colón contradict or conflict with your own personal knowledge of Christopher Columbus, who famously discovered the NewWorld in 1492?

15. Why is Colón so keen to push his foreign documents on Santángel? Do you believe their friendship was authentic, or was Colón merely interested in exploiting Santángel's influence on the king and queen?

16. Discuss the meaning of exile in the novel and how various characters experience it both literally and metaphorically.

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By Fire, By Water 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Kimberly_Book_Addict More than 1 year ago
By Fire, By Water is former screenwriter Mitchell James Kaplan's first novel. Set during 15th-Century Spain, By Fire, By Water takes the reader on a journey through Spain during the time of the Inquisition and the expansion of the Spanish empire. The novel is told with exquisite detail (six years of research!) and rich, layered characters. King Ferdinand's chancellor and close friend Luis de Santangel thinks that the Spanish Inquisition has done nothing but create a landscape of fear and paranoia in Spain. Fed up with the power-hungry inquisitor, General Tomás de Torquemada, he sets out with friend Christopher Columbus to Rome in the hopes that the Pope will somehow intervene. Santangel is especially nervous not only for himself, but his son and brother, because they come from a long line of conversos. (Conversos are families who were formerly of the Jewish faith but have made the transition over to Catholicism). Santangel has been having secret meetings with his aide, a Catholic priest named Caceres, and a Jewish scribe, discussing the theological differences between Judaism and Catholicism. Fearful that these meetings will be discovered after his aide is put to death for his defiance of the teachings of the Catholic Church, Santangel and Caceres hire an assassin to kill an influential priest responsible for his aide's torture and subsequent death. Witnessing the religious climate around him becoming more hostile, Santangel begins to turn to his roots in the Jewish faith in an increasingly anti-Semitic atmosphere. Santangel must try to escape persecution for the contract killing, as well as deal with his ever-growing love for Judith, a silver craftswomen, all while deciding what is more important to him: his faith or his life. Kaplan does an absolutely superb job weaving the storylines of Santangel, Judith, Columbus, and the King and Queen of Spain together. Their individual stories come together effortlessly in this bloggers opinion. Kaplan is a born writer, with his eloquent writing style drawing you in from page one. It is so apparent that he researched this story, as it is just bursting at the seams with intricate detail. I honestly felt like I could visually see everything Kaplan was describing from the landscapes of Spain and Granada all the way down to the detail of the characters' clothing and jewelry. It is by far one of the best parts about the novel. The characters of this story, as I stated earlier, are so rich and layered. Santangel is one hell of a protagonist. There are so many layers and depths to him. You think you know how he is feeling and what kind of reaction he'll have and then BAM you get hit with another layer. The character of Judith is one of the only people in the story who didn't exist in real life. You'd never know it! Kaplan gives her a fantastic back story that rivals that of the actual real life stories of the other characters. That's one of my favorite things about historical fiction, the way in which it ties fiction and non-fiction together. To know all along that this story has roots in reality makes it even more exciting. I cannot recommend this book enough. I am so glad Mr. Kaplan got in touch with me to review this book!! He wrote a book for an adult mind and in doing so he has cemented his place in the literary world. I am so excited to read his future works, as he has definitely become one of my favorite authors. Kimberly (Reflections of a Book A
compulsive_reader64 More than 1 year ago
I consider myself somewhat of a specialist in this period, having majored in History at Brown, concentrating on medieval Spain. As historical novels go, Kaplan got the history about as right as possible, down to many obscure details. But this book is far from being a mere history lesson. It's a gripping tale, with characters you can relate to on many levels, who are caught up in a time of unstoppable change. We see Columbus and the others as part of a larger picture. The reader's interest never flags.
Beth_Hoffman More than 1 year ago
Set in Spain during the 15th Century, BY FIRE, BY WATER is a gorgeously executed book that exemplifies historical fiction at its finest. Written with intelligence and beautifully rendered prose, the story is vivid and as complex as a medieval tapestry. Mitchell Kaplan has seamlessly brought together themes of love, theology, politics, brutality and the deepest longings and treacheries of highly complex characters. He does this while remaining true to the most delicate (and horrific) historical facts of the Spanish Inquisition. With tremendous research and a surgeon's skill, Kaplan peels back, layer by layer, a time in history that is as unspeakably brutal as it is heartbreakingly beautiful. By threading so many fascinating facts (many of which are beautifully nuanced) into the story while giving the characters breath and blood and believability, BY FIRE, BY WATER accomplishes a rarity in historical fiction-a read that is riveting and unputdownable. I was drawn into the lives of Luis de Santángel, King Ferdinad and Queen Isabella, Christopher Columbus, and Judith Midgal, and I was mesmerized. Mitchell Kaplan has crafted a masterpiece that shouldn't be missed. Historical fiction simply doesn't get any better than this. Highly recommended!
NatalieTahoe More than 1 year ago
The Inquisition was a tribunal set by the Roman Catholics for uncovering heresy, and which initially started during the medieval time period in France. It subsequently made its way to Spain in the late 1400s, and focused on Jews and New Christians. Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand petitioned the Pope to establish the tribunals and Inquisition, and once approved, the beginning of a period of sadness began, with the eventual expulsion of all Jews in 1492 from Spain. Why have I only heard in quick passing the Inquisition and the actual horrors that surrounded this event? Sure, I know a little bit about this tragic event in history, but do I really know enough? Two days with Mitchell James Kaplan's debut novel, By Fire, By Water has made me so energized to learn more about this time period, that I'm scrambling for additional knowledge. There are so many characters that I absolutely loved, and some that I completely and thoroughly despised because of their participation in such a sordid event. All, though, are plagued with an internal battle of right and wrong, and some deal with it in an honest and ethical manner in the spirit of ultimate discussion and the meeting of the minds, while some betrayed the very nature of humanity and instead became a vile part of history. Mitchell James Kaplan has done what incredible historical fiction does best -- he has centered a story around a monumental event in history, attached to it etched in time real people, and crafted a meaningful and captivating tale of life in the late 14th century. There is terror, betrayal, love, and most especially, loss. And my heart absolutely broke in two at the end. I highly recommend this book and am excited to read more from this author.
wendyroba More than 1 year ago
Mitchell James Kaplan's debut novel is set in fifteenth century Spain during the time of the New Inquisition when King Fernando and Queen Ysabel were waging war and expelling all Jews from Spain. This period is also remembered for Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) and his discovery of the Western Hemisphere. Kaplan has taken all of these events and created an historical novel of depth, passion and faith which held me spellbound. Luis de Santangel, a converso (the Spanish term which designates a person whose parents or grandparents abandoned their Jewish faith and embraced Christianity.usually under duress) and chancellor to the throne, takes center stage in By Fire, By Water. Horrified by what the Inquisition is doing, Luis finds himself deeply conflicted by his Christian faith. He longs to understand the differences between the Jewish and Christian beliefs. This struggle leads him to engage in secret meetings with a Jewish scribe and several others to learn more about the faith his family abandoned. When a close friend is arrested and dies, Luis becomes enraged at a system that punishes those who dare question the edicts and beliefs of the Church. His choice to silence the Chief Inquisitor of Aragon (Pedro de Arbues) puts his life and the lives of his family in danger. A parallel story - that of a Jewish silversmith who is raising her orphaned nephew in the endangered city of Granada - is seamlessly inserted into the novel. Judith Migdal is a strong, inspiring character.and it is no surprise when her path crosses Luis' as the Spanish war machine grinds ever closer to her home. By Fire, By Water closely follows the historical record, but it is also very much a novel.bringing to life the streets of fifteenth century Spain, the horrors of the Inquisition (Kaplan does not spare readers the brutal torture endured by those arrested), and the drama of the time period when new lands were being discovered by sea exploration. Big, passionate, brilliantly written, full of court intrigue and religious politics, I loved this novel. I read the last half of the book in one afternoon, unable to lay it aside until I knew what would happen. Kaplan's descriptions are gorgeous. He effortlessly transports the reader into the past. He also brings forth the questions of the time: What were the motivations of King Fernando and Queen Ysabel? Were they simply religious fanatics, or were financial considerations the primary reason for supporting the Inquisition and the ultimate expulsion of the Jews from Spain? Kaplan writes in his author's note at the end of the book: "The purpose of a historical novel is to locate and reveal the dramatic core of history." If that is the purpose, then I would congratulate Kaplan on achieving it. By Fire, By Water is a must read for historical fiction fans, especially those interested in fifteenth century Spain. Highly recommended.
BookcrazyAK More than 1 year ago
Superb, literary historical novel. We hear all the time about books that are well reviewed, get accolades, and we readers who follow such recommendations sometimes feel let down. But you will not feel that way about this little gem that comes from a prestigious independent publisher. It deserves all the recognition and prizes it was won.
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Avraham-Anouchi More than 1 year ago
A masterful creation for a first novel, "By Fire and Water" is an outstanding historical novel on the struggle of Luis Santangel, King Ferdinand's "Escribano de racion" (Controller of the Treasury or Treasurer Chancellor), during the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. As a third generation convert from Judaism, he struggles with his life as a Marano and his Jewish ties. The author succeeded in constructing an excellent balance between facts and fiction, but he was faithfull to the accuracy of actual historical events which he researched in great details. A great future awaits Mitchell Kaplan if he follows up with another novel of the same caliber. Review by Avraham Anouchi
TheIntrovertedReader More than 1 year ago
I don't know exactly how to say that I liked reading about this period in history. It infuriated me sometimes, but it felt important to know. I'd heard about the Spanish Inquisition, of course, but I hadn't really thought about who might have been targeted. I was appalled at the ultimate action the authorities took against the Jewish people. I read Poison: A Novel of the Renaissance at the same time that I read this book, completely unintentionally, and the two books fit well together. By Fire, By Water gave me the background and Poison showed me how the Jews fared afterward. Needless to say, it wasn't that well. I never quite connected to Santángel. I think it would be safe to say that I'm a coward. I would have kept my mouth shut and been at the Church all the time. That wouldn't have been any guarantee of safety in that suspicious, greedy climate, but it would have been better than running around asking questions about your Jewish roots. I just didn't quite get his motivation. He's obviously an intelligent man, he knows what's going on with the Inquisition, so why take the chance? Perhaps if the story had been written from his point of view, I would have understood better. I occasionally have this complaint about third person point of view, so this could just be me. I did like Judith a lot. She's taking care of her nephew and her sister-in-law's father. How many people would take on the old man? But she does her best for them both. She doesn't have many options as a woman at this time, but she does what she needs to in order to survive. She becomes a silversmith. She establishes her own trade, and she learns to read. I was very impressed with her. As her fortunes rise and fall, she continues to adjust her plans accordingly. She's a survivor who manages to stay pretty true to herself. She's a character I would like to know in real life. I feel like I learned some eye-opening bits of history. I recommend this to anyone curious about this period of time. The author calls it cataclysmic and I would have to agree. These periods of violence and hatred are never easy to read about, but it is important that we remember them so we never travel those paths again.