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By Fire, By Water, by Mitchell Kaplan

User avatar
MLE (Emily Cotton)
Bibliomaniac
Interest in HF: started in childhood with the classics, which, IMHO are HF even if they were contemporary when written.
Favorite HF book: Prince of Foxes, by Samuel Shellabarger
Preferred HF: Currently prefer 1600 and earlier, but I'll read anything that keeps me turning the page.
Location: California Bay Area

By Fire, By Water, by Mitchell Kaplan

Postby MLE (Emily Cotton) » Sun August 1st, 2010, 8:46 pm

By Fire, By Water
I wanted to like this book. I wanted lots of others to read and like this book. My reason is quite selfish: Granada history is one of my specialties, and almost nobody writes about it. So I welcomed a book with the setting partly in pre-conquest Granada.

I didn't like this book. Actually, it hung around on the shelves for months, because even with my pre-interest, the novel couldn't 'grab' me. So in order to finish the thing, I took it on a packtrip, with nothing else to read. So I finished it--but under any other circumstances, I wouldn't have.

The writer says he 'massaged' the history to fit his plot. (Massaged = wildly slanted / facts misstated and/or inverted.) Now lots of writers do that, and I can tolerate that if the plot reason is good enough.
But it wasn't. In fact, I was very hard pressed to figure out what the plot WAS. This seemed more of a picaresque novel -- One Darn Thing After Another-- except that it didn't stick with one character. There was so much head-hopping, both within scenes and between scenes, that I felt absolutely no emotional attachment whatsoever to the characters he wanted me to like.

And as for the characters he DIDN'T want you to like-- well, heavy-handed would be one way to put it. I don't know why he spent so much time in the heads of Tomas Torquemada and Queen Isabella and his other 'bad guys' (no argument about Torquemada, but he never mentioned that the Inquisitor-general was a converso himself, that would have added too many shades of meaning and ruined the nice black-and-white presentation) except so that you would know that their motivations were really, really bad, and they couldn't think straight about their religion. In any case, I finally resorted to scanning through most of these scenes. They were neither factual nor entertaining and so what was the point?

He did give a little nod of the head to a few of the clerics who fought the Inquisition, Hernando Talavera among them. But he so mangled the recent history of Granada that I almost choked. He mentioned the brother and the son, but somehow left out the actual ruler! He had Ferdinand plotting against the ruler the King actually plotted FOR. And as for the idea that the female protagonist could have continued her business during a ten-year-long civil war followed by a one-year siege -- :rolleyes: .

You never stayed with any character long enough to care about him/her. And as for the politics of Spain and Castile -- it's a good thing Kaplan left most of them out, because he screwed up the bits he put in. Ferdinand never could have usurped the throne of Castile from Isabella, and he knew it going into the deal. He couldn't even rule for his daughter (although Isabella's will named him as regent for Joanna) until her husband was out of the way.

This is the point Kaplan didn't get, which most books don't get: Ferdinand and Isabella WANTED the Jews to stay, as converts. They set up the edict of expulsion so that most would find it very hard to leave Spain, and would therefore be forced to convert. Besides the religious motive (which was probably sincere on Isabella's part but merely useful on Ferdinand's), these conversos provided the backbone of the new monarchs' power structure, because they owed their loyalty and their safety to the crown, not the powerful nobles or the peasant class. The more people in that situation, the better for Isa and Ferd.

The Inquisition was a way to control them once they converted. A constant threat that could be held over their heads to make these subjects do what the sovereigns wanted. It didn't really heat up into the 'pure-blood' horror that it became until Philip II. Kaplan has a number of sources listed in the back that lay out the history of the institution, so he has no excuse for not knowing that.

Plus he made Rodrigo Borgia, in his brief mention, a nice guy. This is the later pope Alexander IV, father of Cesare of the same surname, who made a point of murdering his daughter's husbands.

Spoiler warning: there wasn't an ending. it just sort of fizzled down. Which made me quite mad. If I'm going to wade through all that unpleasantness, it would be nice to have some reason for having done so.

Well, this review will have to suffice.
Last edited by MLE (Emily Cotton) on Sun August 1st, 2010, 9:04 pm, edited 4 times in total.

User avatar
Margaret
Bibliomaniac
Interest in HF: I can't answer this in 100 characters. Sorry.
Favorite HF book: Checkmate, the final novel in the Lymond series
Preferred HF: Literary novels. Late medieval and Renaissance.
Location: Catskill, New York, USA
Contact:

Postby Margaret » Mon August 2nd, 2010, 5:50 am

While I didn't hate this as passionately as MLE, probably because I wasn't hoping as much to like it, my impressions were similar (review at HistoricalNovels.info). It's a debut novel, and I think the author bit off more than he could chew by trying to fit absolutely everything in of relevance to 1492. As a result, the plot was all over the place and didn't stick to any one thread closely enough to keep me interested. I was especially intrigued by a plot thread introduced early in the novel that linked Columbus's idea of a westward voyage to the Indies with an old Hebrew document, but though the thread is tied up near the end of the novel, not enough is done with it in between to keep it interesting.

Like MLE, I'm not fond of spending large amounts of time in the heads of creepy guys like Torquemada, and this novel went over my personal tolerance level. I also prefer to avoid torture scenes, especially when there's nothing particularly fresh or enlightening in the way the author handles them. There was one fairly short torture scene, along with quite a bit of implied torture, so not over my personal tolerance level - but except that the historical Santángel's family was indeed tortured by the Inquisition, there wasn't anything particularly special about the scene that justified its inclusion for me.

The portrayal of Pope Alexander (Rodrigo Borgia), though, was interesting and, I thought, one of the better scenes in the novel. Apparently, this amoral Renaissance pope actually had fairly enlightened policies toward Jews. The about-to-be-published mystery novel Poison by Sara Poole also portrays Borgia as a not-completely-unsympathetic figure, and goes into more detail about his relations with the Jews of Rome. (Review at HistoricalNovels.info coming next week)
Browse over 5000 historical novel listings (probably well over 5000 by now, but I haven't re-counted lately) and over 700 reviews at www.HistoricalNovels.info

User avatar
MLE (Emily Cotton)
Bibliomaniac
Interest in HF: started in childhood with the classics, which, IMHO are HF even if they were contemporary when written.
Favorite HF book: Prince of Foxes, by Samuel Shellabarger
Preferred HF: Currently prefer 1600 and earlier, but I'll read anything that keeps me turning the page.
Location: California Bay Area

Postby MLE (Emily Cotton) » Mon August 2nd, 2010, 6:17 am

Margaret, I would have been OK with the dullness if he had at least gotten the history right. Or maybe if I hadn't been so aware of how many errors there were. But when you have to cringe through page after page of slanted and switched facts, it ruins the main point, which was that the Jews in Spain were badly treated.

For me, it was doubly offensive because the writer compromised his credibility. The Inquisition was evil enough to need no exaggeration.

Paradoxically, I would also have been OK with the 'massaged' history if the plot had kept me entertained enough. But this did neither; it came across as a piece of yellow journalism that cheapened the suffering of everybody involved for no good reason.

User avatar
Margaret
Bibliomaniac
Interest in HF: I can't answer this in 100 characters. Sorry.
Favorite HF book: Checkmate, the final novel in the Lymond series
Preferred HF: Literary novels. Late medieval and Renaissance.
Location: Catskill, New York, USA
Contact:

Postby Margaret » Mon August 2nd, 2010, 6:54 am

Yes, a really water-tight factual underpinning helps to justify dullness, although if I'm going to read something dull on a historical period, I'd rather turn to nonfiction. I don't have enough background on 15th century Spain to be able to pick out distortions and errors, but I did find the love affair between Santángel and Rachel to be far-fetched. And since it never goes anywhere, it mainly seemed like a long digression. I suppose the author put it in because he thought the novel would attract more readers if it had a love interest. For myself, though, I would have preferred to leave it out in favor of a more in-depth look at the politics of the time. This is what most enticed me about the novel before I started reading, the prospect of a look at the politics of Ferdinand and Isabella's court from the perspective of an insider who advised them and managed the cash flow. But that never really materialized.
Browse over 5000 historical novel listings (probably well over 5000 by now, but I haven't re-counted lately) and over 700 reviews at www.HistoricalNovels.info


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