Leigh Bardugo’s The Familiar, Review: Magically compelling

The Familiar is Leigh Bardugo’s gritty yet magically compelling historical fiction filled with romantic suspense set in the Spanish Golden Age. Read my review.

The Familiar Book Review - Leigh Bardugo

Publication: Penguin Books Australia, April 2024

Genre: Historical, Fantasy, Romance, Drama, Action-Thriller

The Familiar Book Synopsis

Luzia Cotado is a scullion toiling away in a shabby house in the new capital of Madrid. But she has many secrets. One of them is the incantations she uses to overcome everyday mistakes and mishaps when no one is looking. One day though, her sad and frustrated mistress Valentina uncovers her hidden talents, and sees a way to use her servant to better her own position in society.

Valentina’s actions start a chain reaction that thrusts them and others close to them into a dangerous world of power-hungry nobility, desperate kings, holy men, and seers, where the lines between magic, science, and fraud quickly become blurred.

But this is the time of the Inquisition, and those deemed heretics are being burned at the stake. Luzia can no longer hide her talents so she must use them, along with her wit and support from those most unlikely, in order to survive.

The Familiar is a bewitching novel, brimming with peril in a world where a woman’s ambition can prove deadly.

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My Review

Can Leigh Bardugo do no wrong? After adoring her epic, action-packed Yale college campus novels Ninth House and Hell Bent starring the feisty Alex Stern, I was eager to read whatever she published next for adults. Plus, as someone drawn to fiction inspired by real historical events, I was particularly excited by this latest novel’s distinctly different setting and context.

The Familiar is captivating and thought-provoking historical fiction first, and a fantasy novel second. I think this is an important point for those that might otherwise turn away due to the magical element. Yes, the magic is often centre stage, but Bardugo employs it as a tool to demonstrate and explore much deeper and weighty themes, such as the plight of minorities in society, the way those that are different are often demonised, and the fickle nature of power and influence.

Once again, Leigh Bardugo’s talents for vivid depiction and superb ensemble character development shine so very bright in The Familiar. Luzia’s journey in developing and learning to harness her magical talents often under duress, sparks a much more compelling blossoming in confidence and awareness of her power as a woman. And this inner beauty, strength and hidden intellect capture the attention of a forbidden beau.

Now we know each other. Let’s see what we may accomplish with fewer lies between us.


But Luzia is surrounded by people with ulterior motives. Who can she really trust? The romantic tension and suspense (and the banter!) in The Familiar is top-shelf, making it very hard to put down once you are hooked. And for me, that happened very quickly.

Yes, Leigh Bardugo’s narrative is once again captivating, her characters extremely engaging, and the storytelling magically compelling. But what I most appreciated about The Familiar is that, once again, this author makes us consider more deeply the plight of those marginalised while hero-ing female grit, intelligence, and resilience over ephemeral definitions of physical beauty.

The Familiar is headed for my future Best Books of 2024 list.

What other reviewers thought of The Familiar

  • The propulsive plotting and this story’s intelligence earned it a starred review from Kirkus Reviews.
  • The Washington Post noted it is different from Bardugo’s previous works in that it explores a brutal and shameful real-life history.
  • Amongst other elements, Booklist highlighted the lead characters’ ‘maddening chemistry’ and the artfully built world.
  • BookPage said it was a remarkable portrait of the magic of exiles and the traumatic echoes of the Spanish Inquisition.

About the Author, Leigh Bardugo