BY FIRE, BY WATER
By Mitchell James Kaplan (Other Press, 320 pages, $15.95 original paperback)
Fifteenth-century Spain, in which Christian, Muslim and Jewish populations convulsed through a horrific resurgent Inquisition and intermittent warfare, is the backdrop of this remarkably learned and heartbreaking romantic novel. Luis de Santangel, a royal chancellor and friend of Christopher Columbus, finds his efforts to deny his heritage -- his grandparents converted from Judaism to Christianity -- increasingly difficult as the Inquisition intensifies. His struggles are both exacerbated and eased when he falls in love with Judith Migdal, a beautiful silversmith. It is astounding how much Kaplan fits in this accomplished debut novel -- describing assassinations, torture, theological discourse, ancient culture and politics, sex and love with a deft blend of straightforwardness and subtlety. Despite the unceasing brutality of their time, Kaplan's characters are shaded rather than all good or all evil. And despite its medieval setting, the story has contemporary echoes. Best of all, it's hard to put down. Beautifully executed, highly recommended.
NIGHT METRO EDITOR
MARY ANN IN AUTUMN
By Armistead Maupin (Harper, $25.99)
In the eighth installment of the "Tales of the City" series, Maupin wraps his beloved crew of San Franciscans in the kind of gently implausible mystery that marked his earlier works. Longtime fans will appreciate the title character's much-needed redemption, although she's no longer as compelling -- or as sweetly entertaining -- as the center of the "Tales" universe, Michael "Mouse" Tolliver. Next time -- and please, Mr. Maupin, keep writing -- more Michael, less Mary Ann.