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“And rage welled up in her, welled up and spilled over. She almost couldn’t speak, she was so angry….most of all at herself, Maya. Who always came too late. Who always did the wrong thing. Who couldn’t save anyone, not even her brother.”
The Cabinet of Earths by Anne Nesbet introduces Maya, age 12, whose family moves to Paris due to a job offer by the mysterious Society of Philosophical Chemistry, just as her mother is recovering from a serious illness. Along with her new friend Valko, Maya begins to discover a web of intriguing connections between her extended family and the Society. She meets a distant relative who guards the Cabinet of Earths – a collection of old magical bottles that Maya is deeply drawn to. When she discovers the Society’s secret magical substance, she hopes it might save her possibly-still-sick mother. But the head of the Society – the adversary – steals Maya’s little brother before she can try to save her mother, and instead she must rescue him.
Once Maya learns the secret of the Cabinet of Earths, she knows she must destroy it, but the Cabinet tempts her, and she begins forgetting her mission. There appears to be a betrayal by a companion. She may be too late in saving her brother. All seems almost lost when she finally squares off against her adversary, holding his very life in her hands.
Tana grew up in a world with Coldtowns, places where vampires and those infected with the Cold that creates vampires can be quarantined. Her mother died of the Cold, and her father has been distant ever since. Tana awakes after a night-long party to find all her friends dead, slaughtered by vampires, and her ex-boyfriend infected. She takes her ex, and a vampire who is being hunted by the others, to the nearest Coldtown in an act of desperation. Along the way they meet some more companions, siblings who are headed to Coldtown to try to become vampires deliberately.
Once in Coldtown, several of Tana’s companions are either killed or become vampires, while she waits to see if the injury she suffered in their escape will result in her own infection. Her ultimate goal is just to get home again (although she has an intermediate goal of rescuing a family member when her sister decides to follow her to Coldtown). However, a betrayal by some of her companions (after drugging her), and an unexpected entanglement with the hunted (and very complicated) vampire, interfere with her plans.
The adversary could be seen to be the Cold itself, but also comes in the form of an ancient, elegant vampire named Lucien who threatens what Tana has come to love. Tana does face off against Lucien, but her greatest battle will be with the infection.
“I was afraid again. It seemed I was always afraid. I didn’t want to be here, in this eerie forest, with this person I only thought I knew. I wanted to go home. Only, home had become a frightening place as well, almost as much as the Nevernever. I felt lost and betrayed, out of place in a world that wished me harm.”
I winced when I saw the “Harlequin Teen” label on this book, but it turned out to be no more romantic than any other young adult faery fantasy novel (which is to say, at least some lingering on the handsome fey prince, but not overly much). The Iron King by Julie Kagawa follows Meghan, 16, whose father disappeared when she was young and whose mother and step-father pay more attention to her little brother than her. Meghan is an outcast at school, her only friend a boy named Robbie who she has known for years. When her four-year-old brother Ethan appears to go mad one day, Meghan soon discovers that he is a changeling, and that nothing in her life is what it seemed. She sets off to faerieland (called the Nevernever) to rescue her real brother. Along the way she makes allies and friends (and one more-than-a-friend, the aforementioned handsome fey prince), and many more enemies, and discovers her true origins.
When the true kidnapper is revealed, Meghan’s quest becomes not only personal, but an attempt to save all of Nevernever itself. Her companions all hurt, disappeared or killed, she must face the dreaded Iron King alone. He offers her a place at his side first, but she is not tempted. However, even when she defeats her adversary, rescues her family member and returns home, her journey is not over, because she has made promises that now must be kept, and faerieland is still in danger.
Before I managed to get my hands on Ghoulish Song by William Alexander, I first read his earlier book Goblin Secrets (which in retrospect, I liked a bit better, though both are good). They are both set in the same place and time, and little bits of each plot intertwine in a delightful way that makes it worth reading them consecutively. However, only Ghoulish Song is a Girls Underground book.
Kaile lives with her mother and father (who are mostly distracted by running their bakery) and annoying little brother in the city of Zombay. One day she lets a troupe of performing goblins put on a play in the shop, and one of them gives her a bone flute in thanks. However, playing the flute somehow makes Kaile’s shadow separate from her – and according to the traditions of Zombay, this means she is dead, a ghoul, and she is summarily exiled from her home and society. Her shadow, who she names Shade, stays near her from habit but is a reluctant companion at best. Kaile sets off in search of answers and the means to re-attach her shadow and resume her normal life. She discovers that the flute is somehow tied to a drowned girl, and the coming floods that may destroy the city. Helped by musicians, threatened by the keeper of the town reliquary, and alone but for her grumpy shadow, Kaile ends up facing a terrifying ghoul made of drowned people and saving the day with the magical musical ability she inherited from her grandfather. In the end, she is re-united with her shadow and welcomed back to the world of the living.
When I covered Into the Woods by Lyn Gardner, I mentioned that there was a new sequel out. Now that I have read Out of the Woods, I can say that it is also a GU story, but it didn’t quite grab me like the first one. Also, I found the addition of characters and settings from Greek mythology a little jarring alongside traditional fairytale figures – I know it may be all one thing to some people, but those are really very different worldviews with different origins.
Storm and her sisters Any and Aurora have barely begun to recover from their dealings with the evil Dr. DeWilde when a new adversary appears, the witch Belladonna, in the guise of the owner of a traveling carnival. Belladonna wants Aurora’s heart to keep her youth and beauty eternally, and DeWilde’s wolves are now her minions too. The witch steals the magical pipe that has returned to Storm, and manages to once again warp Kit’s heart so that he turns from his love Aurora and helps the witch instead, at least temporarily (an example of the classic betrayal by companion). Netta, essentially playing Storm’s fairy godmother, returns to tell her that she must journey to the Underworld to destroy the pipe. But the journey becomes doubly necessary when Aurora dies unexpectedly, and therefore must be rescued.
In a somewhat unsatisfying section, the witch is defeated without much confrontation, and later DeWilde takes up the role of adversary again for the last part of the book. Storm goes underground to the land of the dead, completes her missions and manages to thwart her adversary yet again.
“Then she remembered why she had come to London in the first place; because there was something important to do. If it was important, it was bound to be difficult. She wouldn’t cry and she wouldn’t give up.”
In Tanglewreck by Jeanette Winterson, Silver, 11, lives in the eponymous house, which has a life of its own but lacks her parents and sister, who all disappeared years ago. She is largely left to fend for herself, her only “caretaker” being a supposed aunt who is after the family money (the first in a line of increasingly evil adversaries). Strange things are happening in the world outside Tanglewreck – time itself is breaking down, hurtling people back and forth through future and past, but no one knows why.
One day Abel Darkwater (the next in line) comes to the house seeking a magical clock called the Timekeeper. When he doesn’t find it there, he invites Silver and her aunt to his home in London, so that his accomplices can search the house, and so he can try to pry into Silver’s mind to uncover a memory of the clock’s location. Silver escapes into the city, and quickly finds a companion in Gabriel, a boy living underground with a group of Throwbacks (people from another time). They tell her she must find the Timekeeper before anyone else does, and Gabriel decides at the last minute to join her in her quest.
Silver and Gabriel travel through space and time while seeking the Timekeeper. Gabriel is almost killed, but Silver rescues him. They have the help of several groups of children and adults along the way. A much greater adversary is revealed, Regalia Mason, who owns the most powerful company in the future and is desperate to ensure that the past (our time) goes as planned in order to create that future. In fact, by the end it is almost a case of dueling adversaries, as Regalia and Abel Darkwater both try to control Silver in their own ways.
The final sequence combines several GU tropes – she returns “home” to an alternate universe where her family is intact, courtesy of Regalia Mason, but exposes the fraud of this tempting “happy ending” and chooses to complete her quest, thereby defeating Regalia’s plans. Time is restored to normal, but Silver’s future is unknown.
“The journey will unfold. Your destiny will unfold. But first you must begin.”
While not a full GU story in its own right, I should really mention Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak. Primarily, because it was the initial inspiration for the movie Labyrinth, which in turn inspired the whole Girls Underground concept.
In this beautifully-illustrated picture book, Ida must care for her baby sister while her father is away at sea, and her mother is equally absent in her own way, waiting for him. Goblins come and steal the child, and so Ida sets off in pursuit “out her window into outside over there.” She finds the caves of the goblins, blows her horn and reveals them to all be babies too (which vaguely echoes the “revealing a fraud in the adversary” theme). Then she finds her sister among them and takes her back home.
There is no individual adversary, no companions, and the whole thing is really too brief to be a GU story, but the basic elements are there, and it sparked the template upon which the whole archetype was originally based, so it feels right to include it here.
“Forget all that palaver about fantasy or reality. Act as if ye believe and see what happens. Is that too much to ask?”
Laurel, 18, makes a trip back to Ireland while still grieving the death of her twin sister Honor there a year before. Honor believed in fairies, but Laurel has always been skeptical. Nonetheless, she retraces her twin’s steps from the notes in her diary, and meets a strange creature called a clurican (something like a leprechaun) just where Honor said she’d met him. He tells her that Faerieland is in peril and only she can save it – and in the process, she will rescue her sister, who may not be truly dead but merely trapped between worlds.
Laurel sets out on a perilous adventure, helped along the way by several fae creatures and human friends of Faerie, as well as a boy named Ian who she is both attracted to and in constant conflict with. She must find the lost Summer King and bring him to the magical isle of Hy Brasil on the summer solstice, where he must initiate a ring of bonfires that will bring strength back to the fairies’ lands. And yet, it is the Summer King himself who appears to be her adversary, although the situation is more complicated than she could ever have imagined.
Laurel goes underground twice into the mountain where the King is being kept. As the creatures who once opposed her become her allies, new minions of the adversary emerge to fight against her, culminating in a final bloody battle. She does face off against the King alone and reaches her goal, but the reunion with her sister is not what she had hoped for. In the end, she saves her adversary more than her sister.
Into the Woods by Lyn Gardner is a solid GU story with the extra bonus of including a lot of fairytale references – in varying degrees of subtlety – which the reader can enjoy searching out.
Storm lives with her extremely oblivious parents (a GU hallmark) and older sister. One day she happens to see a town meeting where they hire a sinister man, Dr. DeWilde, and his ravenous wolves to help with the rat infestation. Soon after, her mother dies in childbirth, after bringing into the world her new sister Any, and bequeathing Storm a magical tin pipe. Their father soon runs off, unable to cope, and the sisters are left to fend for themselves.
When Any is taken by DeWilde and his minions, Storm leads Aurora on a chase to rescue her, helped along the way by an old ogress who is kinder than she seems. Storm eventually goes underground via an old mine shaft into the heart of a mountain. Then she manages to lose her older sister too and must rescue them both. But she doesn’t stop there, and has a final confrontation with her adversary where she exposes him for what he truly is, regains the pipe he had stolen, and leaves him to his painful end.
I just found out there is a sequel that also appears to be a potential GU story in its own right, so I may add that too at a later date.
“Liza told herself stories as though she was weaving and knotting an endless rope. Then, no matter how dark or terrible the pit she found herself in, she could pull herself out, inch by inch and hand over hand, on the long rope of stories.”
Like so many GU books I’ve read lately, I picked out The Spindlers by Lauren Oliver by instinct from the new hardcover section at the library. It was a pretty creative and entertaining read, heavily influenced by Alice in Wonderland and other stories from this genre.
Liza lives with her little brother Patrick and her parents, who are both too distracted to notice when one day Patrick isn’t quite right. Liza knows what has happened, thanks to the stories her babysitter told them: Patrick’s soul has been taken by the spindlers, horrible spider-like creatures who inhabit a world Below. She sets out to rescue him, starting at a hole in the wall of her basement, and falling like Alice down a long tunnel to a different world.
Also like Alice, the first creature she meets there is an animal (in this case, a rat) dressed in human clothes. Mirabella becomes Liza’s companion and guide through her journey to the spindlers’ nests, a journey filled with peril and a plethora of remarkable underground creatures. At one point, she almost forgets herself and her quest. And there is a horrible betrayal. In the end she must face the spindler queen and pass three tests to rescue her brother. With help, she is able to fulfill her quest, defeat the queen, and make it back to the safety of her own home.