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The Familiar by Leigh Bardugo
Historical fantasy

The Familiar

by Leigh Bardugo

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Quick take

In 16th-century Spain, a girl with a talent for little miracles finds herself dangerously embroiled in palace intrigue.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Romance

    Romance

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_400

    400+ pages

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Magical

    Magical

  • Illustrated icon, Icons_Underdog

    Underdog

Synopsis

In a shabby house, on a shabby street, in the new capital of Madrid, Luzia Cotado uses scraps of magic to get through her days of endless toil as a scullion. But when her scheming mistress discovers the lump of a servant cowering in the kitchen is actually hiding a talent for little miracles, she demands Luzia use those gifts to improve the family’s social position.

What begins as simple amusement for the nobility takes a perilous turn when Luzia garners the notice of Antonio Pérez, the disgraced secretary to Spain’s king. Still reeling from the defeat of his armada, the king is desperate for any advantage in the war against England’s heretic queen—and Pérez will stop at nothing to regain the king’s favor.

Determined to seize this one chance to better her fortunes, Luzia plunges into a world of seers and alchemists, holy men and hucksters, where the lines between magic, science, and fraud are never certain. But as her notoriety grows, so does the danger that her Jewish blood will doom her to the Inquisition’s wrath. She will have to use every bit of her wit and will to survive—even if that means enlisting the help of Guillén Santángel, an embittered immortal familiar whose own secrets could prove deadly for them both.

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The Familiar

Chapter 1

If the bread hadn’t burned, this would be a very different story. If the cook’s son hadn’t come home late the night before, if the cook hadn’t known he was hanging around that lady playwright, if she hadn’t lain awake fretting for his immortal soul and weeping over the future fates of possible grandchildren, if she hadn’t been so tired and distracted, then the bread would not have burned and the calamities that followed might have belonged to some other house than Casa Ordoño, on some other street than Calle de Dos Santos.

If, on that morning, Don Marius had bent to kiss his wife’s cheek before he went about the day’s business, this would be a happier story. If he had called her my darling, my dove, my beauty, if he had noted the blue lapis in her ears, or the flowers she had placed in the hall, if Don Marius hadn’t ignored his wife so that he could ride out to Hernán Saravia’s stables to look over horses he could never afford to buy, maybe Doña Valentina wouldn’t have bothered going down to the kitchen, and all of the tragedy that was to follow would have poured out into the gutter and rolled down to the sea instead. Then no one would have had to suffer anything but a bowlful of melancholy clams.

Doña Valentina had been raised by two cold, distracted parents who felt little toward her beyond a vague sense of disappointment in her tepid beauty and the unlikelihood that she would make a good match. She hadn’t. Don Marius Ordoño possessed a dwindling fortune, lands crowded with olive trees that failed to fruit, and a well-proportioned but unassuming house on one of the better streets in Madrid. He was the best that Valentina, with her unremarkable dowry and less remarkable face, could hope for. As for Marius, he’d been married once before to a redheaded heiress, who had stepped in front of a carriage and been trampled to death only days after their wedding, leaving him without children or a single coin of her parents’ money.

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Why I love it

She’s done it again, folks.

“She” needs no introduction—but hey, here’s one anyway. Leigh Bardugo: fantasy superstar, gothic creatrix, master of thieves, infiltrator of secret societies… I’ve been a mega-fan for ages. You probably have too. And if you’re new to her work—well, I can’t imagine a more luscious and enchanting place to start.

Luzia Cotado—a lowly scullion in 16th-century Madrid—longs for a better life. Capable of conjuring small, almost insignificant miracles, she uses these scraps of magic and wit to seize her fate—and defy the systems seeking to hold her down. Luzia, you see, is Jewish—but has been forced to hide her true self, at risk of death. Yet, it’s from this same secret heritage that her magic sprouts. And once it blooms—not even the ever-creeping shadow of the Spanish Inquisition can stop it. Add in a handsome-but-cursed familiar, a supernatural tournament, and some of the most delicious prose I’ve ever read, and The Familiar is an opulent, ferocious novel. I adored it.

At its heart, this is a tale about the evils of colonialism. It’s about the many versions of ourselves that kings and conquerors have tried to stamp out. And beyond it all, it’s about the sacred, untamable power within the songs, stories, and memories our ancestors fiercely refused to relinquish.

According to Bardugo herself, she usually writes by daylight. But this book? This, she wrote only in the night. So go on. Let darkness fall. Discover—no, remember—where the real magic lies.

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