By Fire, By Water

Written by Mitchell James Kaplan
Review by Patricia O’Sullivan

In 1492, three events would change Iberia and change the world: Isabella and Ferdinand’s reconquest of Muslim Granada, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and Columbus’s discovery of the New World. In his debut novel, By Fire, By Water, Mitchell James Kaplan shows how these events can all be traced back to Luis de Santángel, a third-generation Christian who served as chancellor to the crown. Santángel is a likeable character whose curiosity about the Judaism of his grandparents gets him into trouble with the Inquisition. In trying to cover his tracks, Santángel participates in a crime that will have ramifications for everyone he loves, including his young son and the Jewess silversmith he has come to love.

Weaving together several subplots into a rich story with a surprising ending, Kaplan draws his readers into the Jewish quarter of Granada, the dungeons of the Inquisition, and the halls of royal palaces. Kaplan’s knowledge of daily life in 15th-century Spain, as well as the political intrigues of the court and the church, makes for an engrossing read. It was fascinating, though unsettling, to be inside the head of Queen Isabella, her grand Inquisitor, Tomás de Torquemada, and the victims of the Inquisition, as Kaplan writes them as real men and women rather than as historical caricatures.