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Review: The Familiar

3/5 stars

I'm not mad, Leigh. I'm just disappointed. You can do so much better!

This gets a 3/5 stars from me mostly because she's a great writer, and even though the writing fell short here, it fell short compared to her usual caliber, not necessarily compared to other writers in a similar genre.

This book is fine. If it were a debut novel, I'd even say it was quite good! But it's not, and it's not.

Luzia is a scullion (maid) in Madrid, working in the home of a couple who wish to be rich, but aren't quite. Still, it's a large house, and every once in a while it caters to a visit from some low level aristocrat. What gets Luzia through the days is her little bits of magic that she uses to make tasks go faster or smoother - lighten the load of carrying a stack of wood, or turn a loaf of burnt bread into a perfectly baked one.

However, when the mistress of the house learns of these gifts, she uses them to help better the family's social and political position. Luzia's magic draws the attention of some high ranking bad men, who want to use her even further to gain favor with the King, and she is entered into a tournament against three other magical hopefuls. In the meantime, she makes the acquaintance of a man known as Santangel, an immortal "familiar" who works for one of these bad men, but also becomes a mentor and teacher to Luzia. Everybody has secrets, and things take lots of wrong turns.

The book felt like it was going somewhere interesting but turned into a romantasy that didn't have any fire to it. I'm sure you guessed already that Luzia and Santangel develop a romantic relationship, which doesn't honestly seem to be based on anything besides that they both have magic. Santangel would have been an interesting character to develop - his back story (how he became immortal) was cool, but then Bardugo just didn't go any further into what that actually looked like for him. He was boring and charmless. Luzia was too, for that matter, for all that she was meant to be a strong feminist character. The "bad guys" were also pretty one-dimensional. Just evil villains doing evil deeds, without little to no nuance to their personalities.

What was especially confounding was that, while her writing was good, it lacked a lot of her normal wit, and I also had the thought multiple times while reading that it sounded more like a cis white male author. Why? I can't totally put my finger on it, besides one specific thing, which is that the way she described sex scenes felt sort of sharp and transactional in a way that I read as more male. And I don't mean all men write that way, I just mean that when I've come across writing that feels that way to me, it's almost always a man. Just makes me wonder what she was aiming for, if it was purposeful, or what she's going through, if it was not.

So, I guess that was a harsher review than 3 stars would normally indicate. It really wasn't awful, it just wasn't great either, and I've come to expect greatness from Leigh Bardugo.


UP NEXT: The Book of Delights, by Ross Gay

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