Pages Menu
Abbey's Bookshop
Plain engish Foundation
Categories Menu

Posted on 23 May 2024 in Fiction |

LEIGH BARDUGO The Familiar. Reviewed by Ann Skea

Tags: / / / / / / /

The bestselling creator of the Grishaverse turns to the history of 16th-century Spain for this story of a young woman with magical powers.

If the bread hadn’t burned, this would be a very different story.

So it would. Luzia would not have used her magical skills, Doña Valentina would never have noticed her, and she would never have met the strange Guillén Santángelo, ‘The Scorpion’, who makes her Aunt Hualit quake with fear.

It was Aunt Hualit who taught Luzia the words:

Those precious, perilous scraps of language, that mix of Hebrew and Spanish and Turkish and Greek that arrived in letters carried over land and sea.

‘What’s the difference?’ Luzia had asked when she was still a child. ‘My father gives me Hebrew. You give me … whatever the refranes are. Both are secrets to keep.’

Both Hebrew and the refranes – the popular proverbs and sayings of the Sephardic Jews – must be kept secret, because this is Madrid at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. The Jews had been banished from Spain in 1492. Those like Luzia’s mother’s great-grandfather had been dragged from their homes and ‘offered death or baptism’, but the baptised (the ‘conversa’) who remained were never considered to be ‘real Christians’.

Luzia’s Hebrew and, especially, the small magical powers that she has discovered through the refranes her aunt has taught her, are dangerous. As her aunt says, she has ‘murky blood’, and could easily be ‘branded as a Judaizer’ and, since ‘the Church owns miracles’, if Luzia cannot prove that her powers come from God, she will be accused of witchcraft.

Luzia has learned to hide her ability to read and write, and she knows it is ‘Best not to be seen. Best not to be noticed.’ She works as a scullion in Doña Valentina’s kitchen and sleeps in rags on the kitchen floor, but she desperately longs for a better life. She has discovered that she can sing the refranes and make things change – ‘“Aboltar kazal, aboltar mazal.” A change of scene, a change of fortune’ – but that misusing them is dangerous. When she tried to increase the money the cook had given her to buy provisions, she reached inside the money pouch and ‘something bit her’.

Twelve copper spiders had spilled out and skittered away. She’d had to sing over the cheese, the cabbage and the almonds to make up for the lost money, and Águeda had still called her stupid and useless when she’d seen the meager contents of the shopping basket. That was ambition for you.

Luzia is careful, but not careful enough, and once Doña Valentina discovers her magical skill and sees that there might be a way to improve her own low social status, Luzia is commanded to demonstrate her ‘little miracles’ to the guests Valentina has invited to supper.

In spite of Luzia’s determination to do nothing – to fail and possibly be thrown out onto the street for humiliating Valentina – she feels sorry for her mistress. Almost automatically, she reaches for a valuable Venetian goblet, smashes it, then, clapping her hands to hide her words, she sings the goblet back together again.

The guests gasped. Valentina released a happy sigh.

‘Praise God,’ Don Gustavo cried.

‘Marvelloso!’ said his wife.

Don Marius’s mouth hung open.

Luzia saw her reflection in the goblet, changed but unchanged, made perfect and ruined all the same.

This is the start of Luzia’s good fortune but also of the immense danger she finds herself in. News of her ‘little miracles’ spreads quickly, but Aunt Hualit is furious with her: ‘What madness has entered your body that you would play such a game?’ She tests Luzia, realises that her niece’s power is greater than her own, and decides to become involved. Hualit is the well-kept mistress of ‘the luckiest man in Madrid’, Víctor de Paredes. In society, she is Catalina, the respectable widow Señora de Castro de Oro, and she knows that Víctor’s ambition is to share the favours of the king with the king’s former secretary Antonio Pérez.

King Philip of Spain has suffered the defeat of his armada; English pirates are ‘laying siege to the coast’; Elizabeth, England’s queen, has the support of her sorcerer John Dee; and all of Castile is sharing the king’s dark mood. If Pérez can lighten his mood, he will regain his position at court, and Don Víctor, too, will benefit. So, as Hualit tells Luzia:

The king wants miracles and Pérez has promised to provide them. He is hosting a torneo at La Casilla to find a holy champion.

Luzia becomes Don Víctor’s protégé, is moved to his home, and Guillén Santángelo, Víctor’s strange constant companion, is tasked with training her to be fit to appear before the king.

Luzia begins to enjoy a life of luxury. She has new clothes, a room of her own and a bed to sleep in. She learns

how to comport herself at the banquet table, proper terms of address, how to sit in her new corset, and how to arrange the hoops and buttresses of her verdugado so that she could use a chamber pot without tipping over or soiling her shoes – though she was firmly instructed to wait for a maid to help her, unless the situation was dire.

Her interactions with Santángelo, however, are strained. She is careful with this creature who vanishes into shadows and makes her aunt tremble in terror, but she speaks her mind, and Santángelo, who is suspicious of her powers, begins to see that she is not as stupid as she pretends to be, and that she does, indeed, have special powers. He warns her of the danger of entering the competition; of the other competitors, who may be jealous tricksters; and of the need to ensure that her ‘miracles’ are seen as ‘angelic’, not as witchcraft. ‘Yes, señor,’ Luzia says.

‘I understand. I will most likely be murdered in my bed.’

‘You may. But you may also see this through and win.’

‘Do you believe that?’

‘I have lived long enough to believe all things are possible.’

He didn’t look very old. Ill and headed to an early grave, but not old.

‘Possible,’ she said. ‘But unlikely.’

Luzia is wary of him, but also drawn to him, and he teaches her valuable skills. Always, she is fearful about what she is doing and she constantly considers withdrawing or running away. She does all she can to hide her Jewish ancestry, is careful to be seen going to church regularly and eating pork, and she hums her songs so that no-one can hear the words. She has no illusions that winning the torneo will mean ‘an end to competition or the danger it presented’. In the king’s service she would be in the world of ‘politics and rivalries, of endless scheming and status-seeking’. Still, she is drawn to compete.

Luzia is a complex, likeable character. Santángelo remains a dark, threatening mystery until halfway through the book, when he reveals his secrets to Luzia. Aunt Hualit, too, has secrets and Luzia is not always sure of her motives. And Luzia’s rival competitors have amazing and fascinating skills ­– which may be genuine, or very sophisticated trickery. At least one of them attempts to kill Luzia, and she does not know who can be trusted.

Leigh Bardugo brings her characters to life and, eventually, immerses us in their ‘magic’. She weaves them beautifully into the world of King Philip’s Spain, with its terrifying Inquisition, its customs, and its belief in God’s miracles, the Devil, and witchcraft. The Familiar is a rich and colourful story, and realistic enough in the hopes, fears, aspirations and rivalries of its characters to make the fantastic magical elements of the story acceptable.

The strange language Luzia uses is Ladino, which originated in Spain among Sephardic Jews and is still a private, living language among the Jewish diaspora, although it is fast dying out. The refranes that are part of this language are many and well-known but not, perhaps, magical. In her Author’s Note, Bardugo writes that ‘the chance that these refranes existed in this particular form in this particular era, is unlikely. They cross oceans and miles to find Luzia, and I found it acceptable to let them cross time as well.’ In a book where magic happens, this can surely be allowed.

Leigh Bardugo The Familiar Viking 2024 PB 400pp $34.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages ( are archived by the British Library.

You can buy The Familiar from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

If you’d like to help keep the Newtown Review of Books a free and independent site for book reviews, please consider making a donation. Your support is greatly appreciated.