Reviewed by Colleen Turner

Many readers of history know of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, their marriage that united much of Spain and their quest to extend their influence, religious beliefs and control as far across the globe as they could reach. And I believe just about everyone has heard of Christopher Columbus, the explorer who’s voyage was financed by the King and Queen and whose discoveries helped lead to what became the “New World”. Many might not know, however, the turmoil that existed during that time in Spain or at what devastating costs their triumphs came, especially for those that were Jewish. By Fire, By Water shows the danger and terror felt during this time of the Spanish Inquisition and what sacrifices came from trying to stay true to one’s beliefs.

Luis de Santangel, the chancellor of Aragon, has money, power and the ear of the King. However, as a converso – a person of Jewish heritage who has been baptized into the Christian faith – he lives a guarded life. He fears becoming a suspect for the New Inquisition which is seeking to find and extinguish what they deem as heretical acts against Catholicism. As tensions mount and the brutality of the Inquisition strengthens, de Santangel finds himself, his family and those closest to him under suspicion; some are tortured and murdered.

With the monarchs sweeping across Spain and taking control of more and more land in the name of their faith, Santangel begins to question his own beliefs and finds strength in Judith, a Jewish woman living in Granada. But when the King and Queen demand that all the Jewish and Muslim subjects in their lands either convert to Christianity or leave the country, Santangel must decide where to place his faith in the future. When all else seems lost, can backing the explorer Christopher Columbus give him hope that salvation and paradise can be found in an uncharted new land?

By Fire, By Water does a good job of describing exactly how far the Spanish Inquisition and the people wielding the power went to “cleanse” the land of the infidels. From rape to torture to extreme depravation it became difficult to read at times but it made a powerful point. It also highlighted the appalling justifications people will use for their ultimate goals. Whether it was conquering lands, murdering masses of people and reaping extreme spoils from the process, all in the name of religion, or torturing people in order to ensure they confess to whatever you wish just to prove the point that your beliefs are just, it was truly heinous.

I was a little disappointed, however, in the supposed romance between Lois de Santangel and Judith Migdal. It seemed forced and, when the book ended, didn’t seem to have enough importance to have been necessary for the storyline. Adding Christopher Columbus into the mix seemed unnecessary as well and drew away from the main plot of the mistreatment of the Spanish Jews. Being under 300 pages, I felt the book needed to either narrow its scope or add more pages to expand the secondary plotlines.

By Fire, By Water really drives home the danger that has come, throughout history, from people so driven by their own beliefs that they turn a blind eye to the horror caused to get what they want. For anyone interested in Spanish, Jewish or religious history, this book is worth the read.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son, their dog Oliver and their fish Finn. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Mitchell James Kaplan. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.