By Fire, By Water tells the story of an important period in the history of Spain. A time of progress and discovery, as Christopher Columbus prepares to set out on his legendary voyage to the Indies and seeks funding from the Spanish court. But also a time of fear and suffering with Tomas de Torquemada’s New Inquisition designed to root out heresy.
Luis de Santángel, the King’s chancellor, is a converso – his family has recently converted from Judaism to Christianity – and his Jewish heritage means that even he, in his position of great wealth and power, is under suspicion. Santángel wants to understand the differences between the Jewish and Christian faiths but attempting to gain this knowledge could put his life in danger.
Intertwined with Santángel’s story is the story of Judith Migdal, who lives with her nephew and his grandfather in a Jewish community in Muslim-ruled Granada. Following the deaths of her brother and his wife, Judith decides to become a silversmith so that she can take over her brother’s silver workshop and support her family. Eventually Luis and Judith’s paths meet, but can there be any happiness for them?
By Fire, By Water was not a light or easy read and I found I had to really concentrate to follow everything that was going on. However, it was worth the effort because I felt that I really learned a lot from this book. I thought it was an excellent portrayal of what it must have felt like to live during the Inquisition, not being sure who could and couldn’t be trusted, knowing that even your own friends and family could betray you at any moment. This book really opened my eyes to the suffering and persecution the Jews faced in Spain. The images of thousands of Jews being driven from their homes and forced to leave the country are unforgettable.
I was also interested in the inclusion of Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) in the plot. Most people are aware of his quest to find the Indies and his subsequent arrival in America, but this book looks at the struggles he faced to obtain the funding he needed for the voyage and to get people to take his ideas seriously.
The author’s attention to detail is incredible, from the colours and fabrics of the clothes people wore, to the sights and sounds of the marketplace. You could never forget that you were in 15th century Spain and I was very impressed with the amount of research that must have gone into this book. Everything felt very realistic and believable.
I read most of this book in one day because I was so desperate to find out what would happen to Santángel, Judith and the other characters. The ending was not what I expected at all, but again, it was probably a realistic outcome. By Fire, By Water should be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates well-written historical fiction or is interested in learning more about 15th century Spain.
I received a review copy of this book from the author.