I LOVE historical fiction, especially when it is about the lives of ordinary people, as opposed to Kings and Queens. Books that bring to life how events of the past would have really affected the people, I believe, can be some of the most educating and dramatic ways of forming a story.
This book, which joins The Thrall’s Tale as one of my favourite books I’ve read that I would never have discovered were it not for a book swap, is a fantastically harrowing story that follow one man and his family through probably one of the most turbulent times in European history; the Spanish New Inquisition, Isabella and Ferdinand’s expansion and unification policies that saw the whole of Spain united, and the Islamic empire of Granada crushed.
Luis de Santangel is the man famous for persuading Queen Isabella of Castille to finance the first voyage of Christopher Columbus. He was Ferdinand’s chancellor and advisor. He was also a conversos, from a Jewish heritage.
This book looks at what happens when a man who believes he has done the right thing in order to advance himself and protect his family sees his world fall away because of cruelty and suspicion. It is the story of a world of superstition made law, and how power and corruption ruin communities.
When Luis accompanies ship’s captain Cristobel Colon on his mission to buy appropriate warships for the forthcoming war with Granada, he learns of secret documents that Colon has collected, written in Hebrew, that tell of ancient Jewish secrets that would bring down the fall of Christianity. Although he begs not to be involved, Colon plants the documents in his trunk. This is an incredibly dangerous position for Luis to be put in, as promoting Judaism is a crime punishable by imprisonment and torture. Never the less, Luis is intrigued and together with his scribe starts to learn more about the history of the Jewish faith. However, when the secret lessons are discovered, Luis’ friend pays the worst possible price and Luis seeks his revenge on the evil Inquisitor responsible. This leads to a series of events that leave Luis in more and more peril, whilst at the same time he triedsto negotiate the war in Granada and keep his Jewish history hidden.
I LOVED this book, even though the first couple of chapters are quite hard to get into. The characters are real, Luis especially is so well-rounded. What could be seen as cowardice in hiding his Jewish identity makes perfect sense in the context of the time. In his relations with others, his son and his brother especially, his actions make you question how you would react, if the only way to save those you hold dear was to completely betray your past.
Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, and in By Fire By Water the comical elements are stripped away, showing the full horror. No fluffy cushions here, and no holds barred either. Every act of torture is described, every depraved act. It is really really gruesome, but almost necessarily so in order to fully understand what it is that Luis is fighting so hard to save his family from. When they nailed a man’s tongue to a plank of wood to prevent him speaking during his trial though I have to admit I had to put the book down for a bit.
This book is also a love story, in part, though that is by no means the most important bit of it. I loved that as well, in that the love story described is between grown ups, and again is relatable rather than fantastic.
If you are an historical fiction fan, you need to read this. It is well written, gripping, and it was just so good to get really really into a book again, after a few weeks of disappointing reads.