Review: “Familiar” by China Mieville

FamiliarFamiliar by China Miéville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Edging on allegory, this urban fantasy sees a London witch-for-hire drawing power from his familiar in order to increase his abilities and to impress a client. But it is not the client-witch relationship that matters, but that of the witch and his familiar. A witch’s familiar is, by folklore, his animal companion and that is what the witch thought he was getting when he previously summoned one.

The seeming protagonist is a witch numb to the many animal sacrifices he’s performed in the past for the sake of a spell. To summon a familiar, he had to sacrifice a part of himself–literally flesh and fat cut out. But he does it for the sake of the result, and then he waits for the likely animal to appear. Yet no animal appears, rather the slimy slug of ameobic flesh starts to move. And the horror begins . . .

Horror and regret lead the witch to try to undo his creation by killing it: by fire, acid, knife, and finally drowning. It’s at this point that the POV jumps to that of the familiar writhing it’s way out of a bag in the dark bottom mud of a London channel. The self-aware thing explores and learns by tool usage, incorporating the discarded bottles and pens it finds to make a carapace and legs. Fish ribs become spikes; fish eyes become its eyes giving it sight. Growth begins. Soon it is taking on mice, cats, and dogs, incorporating their parts along with the inanimate objects it finds. It also starts to explore conceptual tools such as territory and hunger. And it grows . . .

A wonderful climax brings the familiar and witch back together again to show that they’ve never really been separated. Unfortunately, it’s an inverse relationship . . .

This tale appears in Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters edited by John Langan and Paul Tremblay after originally appearing in Looking for Jake.
[Check out my other reviews here.]


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