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The Familiar

THE FAMILIAR rating: 5 stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐.

Leigh Bardugo‘s historical fantasy novel THE FAMILIAR (Flatiron/Macmillan, April 9, 2024) is set around 1590 in Madrid, just after the defeat of the Spanish Armada by England under Elizabeth I, and a century after the first expulsion of the Jews from Spain in accordance with Ferdinand and Isabella’s Alhambra Decree in 1492. Some of Leigh Bardugo’s own ancestors were cast out of Spain during this Sephardic Jewish Diaspora. Tens of thousands of Sephardim converted (or pretended to convert) to Catholicism. The Spanish Inquisition targeted conversos, or secret Jews.

Philip II of Spain, suffering with gout and reeling from his doomed attempt to invade England, is looking for hacedores de milagros, workers of miracles, to help Spain recover its former might and influence. Not magicians, mind you, because that would be demonic–but holy miracle workers. This search is presided over by the Inquisition, because there is a fine line between miracles and magic. In Casa Ordoño, the home of Don Marius and Dona Valentina, a dark-skinned scullion (scullery maid) named Luzia Cordano is performing little miracles while speaking refranes in Ladino, the language of Jewish outcasts.

Whether Luzia’s little miracles come from God or the devil, she doesn’t know or care, as long as she survives. When her power is discovered, her employers drag her to powerful men in order to get closer to the nobility. Suddenly everyone wants a piece of Luzia and she is nothing if not a trier, willing to give it a go and see what happens. She has nothing to lose–or so she thinks–but the eyes of the Inquisitors are on her and she is not sure, once she begins to use her magic, what she wants to come of it, or what she wants to make of her life if she rises above the position of scullion.

Guillén Santángel, an odd immortal being enslaved to a very rich noble, trains her to display her magic in order to impress men even more powerful than his master (who are acting on behalf of King Philip). Once Luzia is in the heady and backbiting world of the nobility, she discovers little by little that deception is everywhere. Luzia has guts, but little experience of the world, and can’t figure out who to trust. Also, as one character points out, the Inquisition is a machine that needs to keep finding sin and heresy in order to sustain itself.

I watched the movie “Napoleon” while in the middle of this book and kept thinking, during the last ten chapters of THE FAMILIAR, that it would make a far better movie. Bardugo has a great gift for characterization and she has pulled from her own heritage to write a thoroughly researched historical novel of magical realism from a time and place not often covered in fiction. It’s quite an achievement. I love Luzia’s spirit, love the plot, love the history, adore the ending. This novelist has leveled up. Like her main character, Bardugo has thrown out all of her gifts (onto the page rather than into a magical arena) and the result is otherworldly. The ghosts of her ancestors show up and show out.

Reading in context:

What have I read by Leigh Bardugo? Every single word. Yes, I was disappointed when “Shadow and Bone” was canceled by Netflix. But this is what talented fantasy authors do–dig deeper and create more incredible characters and a story more than worthy of adaptation. You go, Bardugo.

Being a rabid Anglophile, my reading doesn’t get to Spain very often. The only Isabelle Allende novel I have read, A LONG PETAL OF THE SEA (Penguin Random House, 2020, five stars) starts in Spain but promptly sails to Chile, in another tale of endangered outsiders. DON QUIXOTE is my favorite Spanish character of all time. All hail the Man of La Mancha. Love certainly can make a fool of us all.

Besides this one, the only novel I have read set in Madrid is THE FLANDERS PANEL (1990) by Arturo Perez-Reverte, which was fantastic. I have also read and enjoyed his novels THE CLUB DUMAS (1993) and THE SEVILLE COMMUNION (1995).

What I’m reading right now:

THE EXPECTANT DETECTIVES by Kat Ailes (Macmillan, January 9, 2024).

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