Book Review: The Familiar // Leigh Bardugo

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Leigh Bardugo’s fantasy world, the Grishaverse, has attracted mixed reviews, especially the Six of Crows duology and Shadow and Bone trilogy (which is now a major Netflix series). Whatever your take is, she has earned herself a secure seat at the young adult high fantasy table. The Familiar, Bardugo’s latest standalone novel, hits much closer to home, telling a tale of ambition, greed, and magic. Set in Madrid during the Spanish Inquisition, it is the story of “ambition clouding judgement” and the lengths a desperate person will go to improve their lot in life.

The Familiar is about Luzia Cotado, a scullion in the much-overlooked Ordoño house, who uses her magical powers to make the drudgery of servitude that little bit more bearable. When she is caught fixing burnt bread by her employer, Valentina, Luzia takes the opportunity to climb up all the way up the social ladder of Renaissance Spain, with the chance to impress Antonio Pérez, the disgraced secretary of King Phillip II. Attracting the interest of socialite and her aunt’s lover, Víctor de Paredes, Luzia comes under the tutelage of Santángel, the weary servant of De Paredes, with an unknown claim to the magical world of his own.

In terms of young adult historical fantasy, The Familiar ticks a lot of boxes: an outspoken but relatable protagonist who does not rely on their beauty, a slowburn romance, and the twists and turns of navigating a world out of the main character’s depth. But in practice, this was a disappointing read that was too deliberate for its own good.

There is a clear historical richness to the novel that other young adult novels lack. Bardugo’s own lineage harkens back to 1492, the year of Spain’s expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain. The national humiliation of the Spanish Armada defeat, the diversity of charges inquisitors could hold against a person, and the ways people would bypass interrogation construct a textured and complex world.

Luzia is a conversa, a Jewish person who was forced to renounce her faith and convert to Catholicism (not that this was a safer position to be in). She conjures her spell by singing refranes, phrases in Ladino, otherwise known as Judeo-Spanish. But she must become more powerful whilst simultaneously stifling her voice before her oppressors. The historical and linguistic wealth in The Familiar is undeniable and demonstrates the double-bind of the Inquisition’s victims: damned for refusing the church and damned for not converting convincingly enough.

The overriding feeling from The Familiar is that it needed more time to cook. Antonio Pérez is central to Luzia’s success in a magical competition to win his favour, yet his character is woefully neglected. There are a myriad of decisions made and instantly taken back, putting you in a state of whiplash rather than intrigue. There were captivating points that deserved more time, like the outrageous playwright, Quitaria Escárcega, but end up eclipsed by shadow monsters interrupting a tournament which do little more than derail the plot. Worse still is the rejection of the time-old ‘show, don’t tell’ rule.

Witches may have been made of wood but it does not follow that the prose must be too. The novel’s style is so deliberate that it misses any poetic element that might have elevated the story, or at the very least brought some passion to it. It is not enough to plainly state that a decrepit immortal’s desire for Luzia has brought him a long-lost vitality. There were many opportunities to dwell on emotionally charged moments to wax lyrical which were passed up to dryly itemise each feeling and forced metaphor.

The Familiar is definitely a masterclass in high fantasy worldbuilding for the young adult genre. This was written by the category’s current queen. But a saturated plot came at the expense of bringing much-needed poetry to the prose.

Words by Elizabeth Sorrell


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