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'The Familiar' is a romance, coming-of-age tale, and a story about fighting for more

Flatiron Books

Leigh Bardugo's The Familiar is an entertaining slice of speculative fiction wrapped in historical fiction and delivered with heavy doses of magic and wit.

At once a love story, a coming-of-age tale full of secrets and tension, and a narrative about wanting more and doing anything to get it, The Familiar is a solid entry into Bardugo's already impressive oeuvre.

Luzia Cotado is a scullion with callused hands who sleeps on a grimy floor and constantly dreams of a better life where she has more money, complete freedom, and love. Luiza works for a couple who are struggling to maintain their social status, so she doesn't make much and owns almost nothing. To help her get through her days and take care of menial tasks, Luzia uses a bit of magic, which she keeps secret from everyone.

Luzia learned how to perform little miracles from her aunt, a strange woman and the lover of a very powerful man. When Luzia's mistress discovers her servant can perform "milagritos," she sees it as the perfect opportunity to improve her social status and forces Luzia to work her magic for their dinner guests. But what begins as entertainment soon turns into something much more serious when Antonio Pérez, the disgraced secretary to Spain's king, enters the scene and sees Luzia's magic as an opportunity for himself.

The king is desperate to improve his military prowess, and Pérez thinks Luzia's powers might be the thing that puts him, once again, in the king's good graces. There will be a competition, and if Luzia wins, everyone around her might gain something. But winning won't be easy, and Luzia fears her newfound fame will get her and her Jewish blood in the Inquisition's crosshairs. Surrounded by people with secret agendas, learning to use her magic, caught in a new romance with a mysterious undead man, and an unknown pawn in a plethora of self-serving machinations, Luzia will soon need more than a bit of magic to survive.

The Familiar drags readers into a world of servitude, magic, power struggles, and intrigue. There isn't a single character in this story that doesn't have a secret agenda or something to win—or lose!—that's directly tied to Luzia. The desires of some clash with those of others, and those battles slowly make the narrative more complex while simultaneously increasing the tension and the sense of doom. Despite the many elements at play and the bafflingly large cast of characters she juggles here, Bardugo delivers every twist and turn with clarity, plenty of humor, and charming wittiness, the latter of which fills the novel with superb, snappy dialogue that shows Luzia lacks everything except a quick intelligence and a sharp tongue. Also, while many of the plot elements here like the magic battle, someone being trapped by a curse, and an impossible love are far from new, Bardugo mixes them well together and manages to make them feel fresh.

Known mostly for her Shadow and Bone trilogy, the Six of Crows duology, and the King of Scars duology—all of which are part of her Grishaverse universe—Bardugo delivers an entertaining standalone here with a strong female protagonist that's very easy to root for. Through Luzia, we get a critique of religion, a look into the lives of those who have no option but to serve to survive, and a romance that's as full of passion and sensuality as well as lies and treachery. Lastly, the magic system Bardugo created, which is Jewish magic based on phrases sung or spoken in mixed languages, is interesting and allows the author to talk about otherness without straying from the core of her narrative.

While Bardugo accomplishes a lot in this novel, the crowning jewel of The Familiar is Luzia, a memorable character whose most personal aspirations possess an outstanding universality. We watch her suffer, emerge from her cocoon, fall in love, and then receive her ultimatum: "Your life, your aunt's life, your lover's future all hang in the balance. So do your best or I will be forced to do my worst." Through every single one of those steps, we want her to triumph and to learn to hone her powers, and that connection keeps the pages turning.

At times the endless descriptions of clothing and the increasing number of characters and subplots—some with a satisfying arc and some that just fizzle out—seem a bit excessive and threaten the pacing of the story. But Bardugo is always in control and her masterful use of tension — and that, along with her talent for great dialogue, more than overpower the novel's small shortcomings.

The Familiar is full of "milagritos" and pain, of betrayal and resentment, of fear and desire. However, the novel's most powerful element is hope; Luzia is all about it, and her feelings are so powerful they're contagious. That connections makes this a book that's hard to put down.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on X, formerly Twitter, at @Gabino_Iglesias.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gabino Iglesias
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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