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Nathan’s review of The Familiar by Leigh Bardugo

The tl;dr: A lush, dark, and angry historical fantasy, The Familiar is a fantastic evolution of Bardugo’s writing as she enters into a new genre. The Familiar follows the story of Luzia, a Jewish woman living in Spain during the Inquisition, who finds herself as a pawn in political games once she discovers she has magical powers. The Familiar is a lot of things – a court politics thriller, a slow-burn romance, and a journey of self-discovery. However, more than anything, it is a searing critique of how religion is co-opted in secular political games. The themes, characters, and well-drawn historical setting all shine through this book, and it is worth picking up for longtime Bardugo fans, as well as those who are new to her writing.

Cover of The Familiar

My full review:

The Familiar transports readers to the courts of early modern Spain in this deeply personal, viscerally angry, and emotionally resonant historical fantasy from Shadow and Bone author Leigh Bardugo. Readers looking for a richly painted historical setting with just a touch of magic will be utterly enchanted by this book – as well as angry about the power systems that have weaponized religion for their own gains.

The Familiar tells the story of Luzia, a scullion maid in a low-ranked house of Spanish nobility who (1) has discovered she has magical powers and (2) comes from a Jewish family. When her mistress, Valentina (who laments her husband’s lack of affection, her infertility, and her family’s low rank) discovers Luzia’s ability, she decides she can use it to ingratiate herself with the wealthier members of the Spanish nobility. This catches the attention of both the very powerful, including the King of Spain, as well as the terrifying Spanish Inquisition.

I have been eagerly awaiting the release of The Familiar since it was announced because I am always excited for Bardugo to try something new. From epic fantasy (Shadow and Bone), heist fantasy (the Crows duology), and dark academia (Ninth House and Hell Bent), Bardugo has shown herself to be a fantasy author chameleon – and she wows here with her first historical fantasy. This book is definitely heavier on the “historical” over the “fantasy”, but Bardugo’s research and effective prose work wonders to make 1600s Spain come alive.

It is clear from the opening pages of The Familiar that this was quite a personal book for Bardugo, who herself is Jewish. While The Familiar is a lot of things – a court politics thriller, a slow-burn romance, a journey of self-discovery – it is above-all an explicitly political book. The Familiar is a damning critique of the intersection of politics and religion. Bardugo is clear that religion is often wielded as a weapon; that claims of religious purity and theological homogeneity are cudgels to justify anti-semitisim, ethnocentrism, and internal power struggles for individual gain. It is, at times, a bleak view of religion, one in which religion has little function outside of the political games that adopt it. At the same time, it is an insightful use of the historical fiction and fantasy genres to comment on anti-semitism in the modern world – and how conservative authoritian regimes have used Christian superiority and longevity as a reason to continue to demonize, root out, and eradicate Jewish populations. While set 400 years in the past, Bardugo uses the Spanish Inquisition as a mirror for our own sociopolitial failings – and when you take a step back what a searing critique it is.

Even within this deeply personal story, Luzia doesn’t come across as a self-insert Mary Sue. Luzia is a flawed person, and has the difficult role of navigating an imperfect and unjust world. Despite her Jewish heritage, Luzia doesn’t always feel connected to her ethnic and religious background. Her aunt is a (secretly) proud Jewish woman, but Luzia doesn’t quite know how to navigate her Spanish Christian identity with her geneological past. She doesn’t support the actions of the Spanish government or Inquisition, but at the same time she doesn’t feel a strong connection to Judaism – while also not repudiating it entirely. She is both a Christian while also being very much aware that much of religious identity is the performance of religion – religion is just as much about being seen as religious (through public displays of fervent prayer, being a frequent Church attendee, etc.) as much as your actual and physical beliefs. I loved Bardugo’s choices here because it would have been so easy to make Luzia a one-note heroine, but instead we get this complex person that I loved spending time with.

Luzia isn’t the only POV character, and I also immensely enjoyed the other POV characters as well. Santangel, a mysterious mentor figure that is also a slow-burn love interest (the romance here isn’t particularly heavy if you don’t like romance, but it present enough if you seek a bit of romance in your reading). As his layers get peeled back, we get glimpses of a dark and traumatic past. He is a wonderfully drawn character who is both a puzzle box and an intimately knowable human being. The last major POV character is Valentina, Luzia’s social-climbing mistress,  a person who is entirely hatable as the book starts, but becomes more wonderfully drawn as the story progresses. The Familiar is a short book, and yet Bardugo was able to add so much depth to these characters that just adds to the rich tapestry of this historical period.

The only thing I was a tad dissapointed in The Familiar was Bardugo’s reliance on a major fantasy trope – the tournament or competition. We have seen this time and time again where it seems like authors need a simple plot device, and so they gravitate towards the YA/NA streotype of needing some competition (in The Familiar this is a competition amongst four alleged magic users to impress the King of Spain). Bardugo pulls it off well, and the focus always remains on developing the characters and the political themes of the novel, but it felt suprisingly lazy for a book that otherwise was so carefully planned and plotted. The middle part of the books drags just a bit because we have seen these tournament/competition scenerios play out time and time again, and The Familiar would have been stronger with a less (ahem) familiar plot.

If you have been avoiding Bardugo’s works because YA and/or dark academia are not your things, give The Familiar a chance. It is beautifully realized, historically resonant, and bursting with complex characters. It is the perfect place to see how Bardugo has evolved as a writer and storyteller.

Nathan

Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

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