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06/04/2024 09:25:10 AM


Ladino Magic

By Robin Jacobson

The Familiar by Leigh Bardugo imaginatively blends the genres of historical fiction and fantasy.  This captivating novel is set in 16th century Spain, a time and place linked to the author’s family history.  

In 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain, Bardugo’s Jewish ancestors fled to Morocco and Egypt.  They lost contact with family members who were forced to become conversos (converts to Catholicism) in order to remain in Spain.  Says Bardugo, “it’s as if that branch was pruned from the [family] tree.”  In The Familiar, she makes that lost branch “bloom again" by imagining lives for her long-ago relatives and their descendants.  And naturally, being a celebrated fantasy writer, Bardugo added a dash of magic to her lost family's story.

A Cinderella with Mystical Powers

The Familiar follows the fortunes of Luzia Cotado, a kitchen scullion in a Madrid household in the late 1500s.  Although only in her twenties, Luzia feels older, the result of backbreaking drudgery and uncomfortable nights sleeping on a dirt floor in the house larder.  She dreams of a better life.

Luzia must keep her Jewish ancestry secret.  Aware that the Inquisition has spies everywhere, she takes care to be regularly seen at church.  She tells no one about her late parents’ clandestine Jewish practices or about the “bits and pieces of Hebrew handed down like chipped plates” in her family.

Luzia has another secret.  She uses small scraps of magic to lighten her household chores.  To summon the magic, she softly sings refranes (proverbs or sayings) in the Sephardic Jewish language Ladino.  By murmuring “Whoever doesn’t laugh, doesn’t bloom,” Luzia can make a pot of herbs grow.  By singing “a change of scene, a change of fortune,” she can restore burnt bread to a perfect loaf.

Luzia’s life becomes both more exciting and dangerous after her mistress, Valentina, discovers that she has magically mended a torn dress.  Valentina insists that Luzia present her milagritos (little miracles) as after-dinner entertainment for guests.  This sets in motion a chain of events that sends Luzia to a torneo, a competition among magicians vying to become a “holy magician” to the Spanish king, Philip II.

For reasons of his own, Víctor de Paredes, a wealthy merchant trader, sponsors Luzia for the torneo.  Victor’s mysterious companion, Guillén Santángel, takes charge of training Luzia to elevate her household magic to bolder ventures.

A Richly Recreated World

Bardugo recreates 16th century Madrid, a bustling city which Philip II made the capital of Spain in 1562.  The shops, the clothes, and the multi-course meals of the wealthy suffuse the novel with vibrant, sensuous detail.  

Luzia must navigate a perilous course through the political intrigues of the time.  The torneo’s host is Antonio Pérez, King Philip’s disgraced former secretary (an actual historical person).  Pérez hopes to regain royal favor by finding Philip a powerful magician.

Philip is in urgent need of assistance, magical or otherwise.  Humiliated by the disastrous defeat of his Spanish Armada in 1588, the king wants to rebuild his navy and try again to invade England.  His goal is to dethrone the Protestant queen, Elizabeth I, and reinstate Catholicism in England.

To win the torneo, dazzling magic is not enough.  Luzia and her competitors must also pass muster with the Catholic Church.  The dreaded Inquisition is ever hunting for hidden Jews, heretics, or anyone practicing magic deemed to be of satanic origin. As Bardugo shows, in Golden Age Spain, the lines between science, divine miracles, and dark magic were blurry.  The Church held the fearsome power to make these life-or-death distinctions case by case.

Fri, July 19 2024 13 Tammuz 5784