The Familiar (Leigh Bardugo) – book review

Leigh Bardugo draws on her family history to deliver a fascinating historical fantasy The Familiar. Bardugo showed in her Grishaverse books (aka Shadow and Bone etc) a willingness to draw on traditions outside of the general North Western European traditions for her fantasy. The Familiar takes readers to sixteenth century Spain shortly after the defeat of the Spanish Armada by the British and at the height of the Inquisition. In particular, Bardugo takes on the plight of the Marranos or conversos, those who were forced to convert to Christianity but hid their real identities and secretly lived as Jews.

Luzia is one of these, daughter of Jewish parents, she lives her life as a practicing Christian. But Luzia has inherited more than her faith, she has also learnt to do magic, using Ladino (the language of the Jews of Spain) phrases and particular tunes, a skill she also hides. Luzia works as a servant in a moderately wealthy household in Madrid, and keeps her magic hidden until one day she slips up and reveals her talent to her mistress. Soon Luzia has caught the eye of her aunt’s lover, a powerful man called Victor de Paredes, who wants Luzia to compete in a competition to find a new magic user to aid the king. And de Paredes has a secret weapon, his familiar Santángel, a being cursed to serve the de Paredes family who can help Luzia discover and hone her powers. But there is a fine line between magic use and devil worship, and the eyes of the Inquisition are on this competition, its organiser and its competitors.

Bardugo broke away from her YA roots spectacularly with the dark campus fantasy Ninth House and its sequel Hell Bent. In The Familiar some of this excess is tempered a little, and there is a strong romance element, but this is still a dark, adult fantasy set in a dangerous time and drawing on historical events. As noted, Bardugo based this book on the lives of her ancestors some of whom fled Spain during the 1492 expulsion of Jews and some who stayed as Marranos. And her acknowledgements reflect the extent of the historical research that has gone into the setting and atmosphere of The Familiar.

There are some fairy-tale elements of The Familiar – servant who comes into power, a supernatural romance – but whereas fairy-tales often exist in a political neutral environment the expectations in this tale are tempered by the real world on 16th Century Spain and in particular the religious politics in play at the time. Overall, The Familiar is more great fantasy from Bardugo, centred around two complex characters supported by a cast of well-realised side characters set in a fascinating and well-realised time and place.

Robert Goodman
For more of Robert’s reviews, visit his blog Pile By the Bed

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