She’s a Witch, and a Jew— and Both Mean Death

The Familiar, by Leigh Bardugo (Flatiron, $26.99), is a story about what has been taken from Jews and from women, and what it costs to seize it back. A hotly anticipated standalone fantasy by Bardugo, the bestselling author of several multiple-volume fantasy franchises, The Familiar is set in Spain during the Inquisition. It delves into what it means to survive in a society which punishes mere existence. There is no safety in such a world, and yet the characters chase its illusion all the same.

Luzia Cotado, the primary protagonist, is a scullery maid in Madrid who works to the bone to survive, serving the noble but destitute Don Marius and Doña Valentina. While she’s little more than a slave, Luzia is at least grateful to have a place to sleep and nurses a secret wealth of knowledge and a clever mind. Valentina, for her own part, may be in charge at home—but she is trapped in a barren marriage, unable to go outside alone given societal restrictions. Luzia’s aunt, Hualit, the mistress of perpetually lucky Don Víctor de Paredes, has meticulously invented a backstory for herself to exist at the wealthy man’s mercy. Her niece is her only family, but she holds herself at a distance from Luzia, lest association between the two of them spark questions about their family’s past and reveal them as “Judaizers.”

When Luzia exhibits signs of magic— the ability to fuse shattered glass, to restore burned bread, to mend torn dresses—Valentina insists that she perform for guests to bolster her own status. But this catches the wily Victor’s attention. He recruits Luzia to enter a contest, ostensibly to find a new holy champion for the king, who is desperate for any advantage in his war against England.

Thus begins a perilous entrance into the world of the Spanish nobility, and a highwire act in which Luzia must be magical enough to impress—but not so magical that she’s accused of conspiring with the devil. She doesn’t want to let on that to work her magic she sings a series of refranes—proverbs passed down through generations in many languages, including Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language.

In a role reversal, Luzia prepares while Valentina serves as her maid and Hualit, the courtesan, teaches her courtly behavior. The women are tied together by the aspirations and greed of the men in their lives, namely Victor and Marius. But it is Guillén Santángel, Don Víctor’s “familiar,” a supernatural figure himself, who is responsible for teaching Luzia how to wield the refranes. Trapped in an ill- advised bargain with Victor’s family for hundreds of years, Santángel can only use his own magic to ensure the success and prosperity of his master’s line. When Victor offers to finally free him if Luzia wins, these two wielders of magic enter into an uneasy alliance which quickly turns magnetic and damning. The two outsiders’ uneasy alliance becomes as magnetic and compelling for the story, and the reader— as it is dangerous for both characters.

As a character, Santángel is the embodiment of regret, a mistake that can never be undone. This inhuman protagonist is the most human—aching with the impossibility of turning back time. Santángel is a cautionary tale in flesh and blood, a tale that no one heeds. Luzia, Hualit, Valentina—each wants more than she can possibly possess, and pursues it anyway.

Despite all the sorcery swirling within, The Familiar is an essentially Jewish story of insecurity, poverty, discrimination, and death. Readers know this is a story set in the Inquisition, and that it cannot be free of pain. But we tell stories even when we know that they are tragedies. We tell them over and over, because it would hurt worse to forget.

Even if there is only a sole survivor, it is enough if that single person carries knowledge and memories forward. Luzia is the last of her family, and we are reminded over and over just how tenuous her ancestral knowledge is. But in the end her identity is as powerful and transformative as it is risky. What is carried on isn’t just the bone-deep understanding that to be a Jew in the world is dangerous. It is also the beauty and the connection. It is the strength of words, songs, prayers, refranes, memories never forgotten. Readers may never forget this book, held in its spell long after we close the pages.

Laura R. Samotin is the author of the new Jewish-inspired adult fantasy novel The Sins on Their Bones.