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••• The International Writers Magazine -
Book Review

The Familiar by Leigh Bardugo
• Sam Hawksmoor review
Adult historical fiction from the magical world of Bardugo

The Familiar

The Familiar arrives in a beautifully bound hardback at a particularly will timed moment. Anti-Semitism is on the rise all across America and Europe with students yelling 'Death to Israel' and hundreds of thousands marching in London chanting from 'The River to the Sea' and 'Death to Zionism'. The Familiar is set in another time of course, the 16th Century Madrid caught up in the Spanish Inquisition terrors. A time when Jews must convert to Catholicism or be burned or hanged or both. Converts were suspect no matter how many times they attended Mass.  No one would hire a Jew. The option for them was to flee or go undercover.
Luzia Cotado is a young conversa, a scullion, the lowest of the low, a dogsbody in a lower middle-class household where she sleeps on the floor, pisses in the alley and fetches water, scrubs floors, lives a life of complete misery hiding her intelligence in plain sight. A soup stirrer who can read Latin but must pretend to be illiterate.  She’s not especially attractive, goes out of her way not to be noticed. To relieve her burden, she has one or two spells to lighten her load. A phrase to unburn the bread or make carrying water easier. Nothing to get excited about. She’s invisible and wants to stay that way.

Her employer is keen to move up in the world. Desperate to matter in this stinking cesspool of a city with no sanitation. (If you ever fancy a trip to the past remember that no one washes, shit flows in the streets and everything stinks). Bardugo doesn’t spare us the stench of history but lavishes much attention on the costumes and morals of the time. For some readers this might prove slow but in actual fact she is world-building for a readership that might not be familiar with this cruel and heartless period of history.

When Luzia’s employer breaks something Luzia absently restores the object to pristine glory. Immediately she realizes her mistake. She has revealed her true self. A greedy selfish employee will want to show this off, to intrigue and impress her guests. Luzia is trapped. She must keep repeating her little ‘miracles’ for ‘entertainment’.

Naturally this brings attention to her and the risks of Inquisition. Is this a skill that belongs to God or Satan?
Luzia’s life on the cold kitchen floor is about to change. She will be tested and paraded by one powerful man called Victor and educated by his cold-blooded killer ‘Familiar’ called Santangel. He looks young but has something of a corpse about him.  He resents the task he has been assigned but is also aroused by Luzia as he begins to understand her potential.

So yes, its love story, but it’s the best kind of love story, a doomed love story. It’s a story about competitive magic all weaved together in the beautifully crafted language of Leigh Bardugo. (Her ancestors fled Spain in this period so it must have great resonance for her to write this one-off novel).

The research is impeccable, as ever. One does not have to identify with many of the characters. Few are likeable and many are selfish. You might root for Luzia as she experiences her first hot bath, her first hot kiss but you know this can’t last. Magic is not something God permits in a world where people are burned at the stake for anything at all.

We do not know where the current protests against Jews will end but we have plenty of history at hand to guess as to how quickly it all gets out of hand and the burnings begin.
Read The Familiar and learn.

© Sam Hawksmoor April 27th 2024
author of Girl with Cat Blue and his new novel The Restoration of Ami

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