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By Fire, By Water: A Novel

By Fire, By Water: A Novel

by Mitchell James Kaplan
By Fire, By Water: A Novel

By Fire, By Water: A Novel

by Mitchell James Kaplan


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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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781590513521
Publisher: Other Press, LLC
Publication date: 05/18/2010
Pages: 298
Sales rank: 329,453
Product dimensions: 5.72(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.90(d)

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 vizier.”
   “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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