Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Book Review: The Familiar by Leigh Bardugo

A step somewhat outside of the author's usual métier... but plus ça change for Leigh Bardugo, it seems

Luzia is a maid in 15th-century Madrid, a poor girl with Jewish heritage trying to hide from the attention of the Inquisition in already hostile circumstances… and it's made only worse by the fact that she has something more to hide: Luzia can do magic. Little charms, taught to her by her aunt, things that help around the house—unburning the bread, mending things that have broken. But little things could be enough to put her in big trouble. So Luzia keeps it all under wraps, until a slip-up means her mistress catches on. Under pressure, knowing the trouble scrutiny could get her into, Luzia is forced to use her magic to help her employers grasp for better social standing, and from that everything spirals out, bringing her to the notice of those with power to harm her, harm her aunt, and affect the power balance of the whole country. She is forced to compete to serve the king with her skills, and walk a dangerous line of pious, Christian mysticism, hiding who she is, where she came from, and the realities of her magic.

As a blurb, it sounds a little… pat. The "magical competition" angle is hardly underdone in fantasy, after all. But in the reading of it? It actually works. And I think there are two reasons for this.

Firstly, the choice of setting. 15th-century Spain was, to put it bluntly, not a fun time for quite a lot of people. Shit was brutal. And when your central character is someone trying to hide their Jewish heritage from the Inquisition during the worst of it? Well. And Bardugo never shies away from that. She does her best to give us a real sense of what that might feel like, what life might be like. Luzia's day to day is grim and hard, and especially early in the book we get a lot of her musing on memories of her father and the life he faced—not even necessarily one of pointed, deliberate oppression, but the simple cold, awful reality of living in a time where there was no care for people like them, where a slip in circumstances could mean death, where an illness could mean the end of everything. Luzia, we come to know very quickly, is keenly aware of the precarity of her position in the world as a poor person, as a woman, as someone with something to hide from the Inquisition. And having all that grounding laid out so well, so clearly, gives us a really good position to build from when we get into the complexities of Luzia as a person, when the choices she makes begin to contrast with what she ought to do, what she knows is sensible but cannot bring herself to settle for.

Secondly, the pacing and the tone—we don't get to the competition aspect of the story for a good while, so we're bedded into the world, the characters, the reality of it, and we've had time to acclimate to the far more serious and thoughtful vibe that this is going for, compared to many magical competition stories. It's not an action adventure, despite the events of the story fitting that pattern. And the thing that pulls it away from that is the writing, and Luzia's perspective, the way she sees and thinks about the world. It's too real, too thoughtful, too complex—angry and determined and ambitious and fearful and regretful and naive by turns. And because the writing is so closely bedded into her thoughts, that perspective comes through in the tone, making it all the richer.

Because Luzia is, for the most part, an exceedingly well-written character. She has a complexity to her that sells her as a fully realised human being, grounded in, but not wholly bound by, the constraints of her setting and situation. Luzia wants more, when she dares to let herself hope for it, and we cannot help but hope for it with her, even as we see the risks it involves.

And the writing is genuinely lovely. Bardugo focuses in a lot here on descriptions of place, of texture and food, and the little things that build up to a full picture of a real life. Cloth and clothes and scents and lights and movements, temperature and embodiment in the moment. All of it gives us little links into that setting that Bardugo has worked hard to craft, without ever feeling the need to shout about it or go into heavy exposition.

So, focusing on that, on Luzia and her characterisation, on the setting… it seems like a well-told historical novel with some magical elements thrown in, right?

Well. The bit where it gets tricky is that there's another strand to this, another thread of the supernatural that messes things up a little. Because the powerful man whose attention Luzia's magic brings to her master and mistress? He's not a stranger to the supernatural. He already has someone in his employ who has his own expertise and backstory, his own angle. In and of itself, that would have been fine, especially as it gives us some grounding in magic in the world outside of the tight restrictions of what Luzia herself can plausibly know. The problem is that he's a dark, sexy, grumpy man with an extremely chequered and/or dubious past that haunts him still, an archetype Bardugo cannot seem to quite leave behind, especially not as a love interest.

In the novel the blurb sounds like this is going to be, Santangel fits right in. Feared assassin rumoured to have demonic powers? Grumpy but with a sympathetic streak for Luzia? Absolutely, bang on the tropes. But for the novel it began to seem like we were getting? The thoughtful, historically grounded one that cares about a realistic portrayal of 15th-century Spain and the perspective of someone in Luzia's position? The complex character study, giving us someone whose pragmatism, changeability and hunger for a better life are both incredibly sympathetic and full of foreshadowed pathos? He feels like an off note, a character from a different story altogether, dragging us away from complexity and into something altogether more trite.

In the moment of reading, this is easy to skim over. The prose is good, the story moves at an easy pace, and there are some genuinely stunning romantic lines sprinkled throughout, as well as enough of a growing unease within the story, a sense of impending doom, that you cannot help but push through to find out how it's all going to shake out. Santangel's slowly melting heart, Luzia's increasing hunger for life and connection, they make sense in the moment, caught up in the emotion.

But when you look back after the fact, when the book begins to settle in the memory, that off note becomes more apparent. As the memory of the prose and the details fade, what lingers is this strange relationship, this strange foray into the far more typical fantasy repertoire in a book that is striving to break slightly less trodden ground. It's a call back to other Bardugo work, in a book that otherwise feels like a foray into new things for her.

Don't get me wrong, I have enjoyed other Bardugo. But the tropes that work in Shadow and Bone, or even in Ninth House, both of which are quite different but still quite traditional fantasy stories, do not quite land here. The Darkling or Darlington fit their settings in a way that Santangel never seems to quite gel into this one.

It's an interesting contrast to another book set in the same time, with Jewish perspectives, that I read recently: The Pomegranate Gate by Ariel Kaplan. On the face of it, that is a story that goes far more into traditional fantasy realms, with magical portals, fantastical places and people who aren't actually (or fully) human at all. But it has a coherence to it that The Familiar doesn't quite manage, and never lets the fantastical run contrary to the historical, instead having them genuinely work together towards the aims of the story. In some ways, The Familiar is a more ambitious work, striving for a greater closeness of perspective and embedding in the realities of the setting; but by having that single discordant trope, it never quite hits those goals. The Pomegranate Gate meanwhile knows exactly what it wants to be and does it with élan, and feels all the brighter and richer for that consistency.

Ultimately, The Familiar does feel more grown-up than some of Bardugo's other work, a foray into greater realism of setting, greater closeness of character, greater awareness of a complex, rich world putting its feelers through all aspects of the story, but it just does not linger in the memory in the way that Six of Crows or Ninth House does. It's good, it's an enjoyable thing to read, and it has some genuinely lovely prose at times, but it's just missing some of the magic. I hope it's a stepping stone. Because if she does something like this again, and just goes that little bit further with it? All the ingredients are there, and could make something truly special. We just need to leave the spectre of the hot, morally dubious man where he belongs. Or at least try to bed him into his setting as much as the protagonist (or as much as he beds the protagonist—wahey).


Highlights: lovely moments of description, absolute banger romantic lines, genuinely complex protagonist

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Reference: Bardugo, Leigh. The Familiar [Penguin Books, 2024].

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroformtea.bsky.social