Book review of The Familiar

Books

What’s the difference between witchcraft and a miracle? According to The Familiar, beloved fantasy author Leigh Bardugo’s latest novel, the answer is simple: politics. This distinction is of life-and-death importance for Luzia Cotado, a scullery maid in a less-than-fashionable Madrid household whose milagritos, or little miracles, can lighten a heavy load or make flowers bloom in winter. As a conversa, a descendant of Jews who converted to Catholicism under the threat of death, Luzia is careful to appear devout lest she fall under the scrutiny of the Spanish Inquisition. That means keeping her milagritos, with their incantations derived from a patois of Hebrew and Spanish, secret. But when her lonely, petty mistress discovers her gifts, Luzia is forced to display her power publicly and thus increase her employers’ standing in society. If she successfully navigates the elite’s whims, a more comfortable life awaits. If she fails, she can only hope the Inquisition will offer her a quick death.

The Familiar is a book where candles cast deep shadows and even sunlit scenes take on an air of unease. At its center is Luzia, a difficult woman to like, both in-world and for a reader. Foolhardy and ambitious without wisdom, she makes decisions that endanger her life for little reward, time and again. Her counterpoint is Guillén Santángel, the eponymous familiar. As with so many of Bardugo’s morally gray (and potentially evil) male characters, Santángel is immediately compelling, even before readers venture into his perspective. The mysterious immortal wraith holds not just Luzia’s attention, but that of the entire city. Through his ancient eyes and almost alien mannerisms, Bardugo adds depth and intrigue, preserving the mystique of the pre-modern world even as the Age of Exploration begins. Full of hidden perils and twisting machinations, The Familiar is Bardugo’s most assured and mature work yet, a remarkable portrait of the magic of exiles and the traumatic echoes of the Spanish Inquisition.

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