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“Look at you, in that rather horrible dress and those clumpy boots. You dreamed you could invade my world with a frying pan. You had this dream about Brave Girl Rescuing Little Brother. You thought you were the heroine of a story. And then you left him behind.”
I’ve noticed that GU books often are titled after the girl protagonist (it’s a clue when one is scanning the shelves for them), but The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett is named after her companions.
Tiffany is nine years old and lives in the Chalk country of Britain with her family, including her baby brother who she doesn’t much like. One day monsters start appearing, and then a group of tiny Scottish men who think perhaps Tiffany is the witch they’ve been looking for to help (although they end up helping her just as much). When her brother is stolen by the Queen of Faerie, Tiffany must journey there to rescue him. She is almost trapped in a dream of home (the returning-to-home theme you see often in GU stories), but is saved by her own quick thinking. She faces off against the Queen a couple times, but the final defeat happens when Tiffany realizes who she is, deep down. With a little help, she brings her brother and another child out of fairyland, and confidently faces her future as a true witch.
(This is a pretty classic GU story, but beyond that it is delightfully well written. Pratchett has a knack for being funny and deeply meaningful at the same time, and has quite a canny understanding of the inner workings of magic.)
“If you trust in yourself…and believe in your dreams…and follow your star…you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.”
“It was everything Bird had wanted to hear from her own mother, but never had. It was as if the Puppeteer could see into her dreams – and perhaps she could. Bird should have noticed that nothing the Puppeteer said was surprising. It was all just exactly what she hoped and planned for. That’s the sign of a bad story, and a false one.”
I read a lot of GU books, and books that might be GU. A large portion of them are YA or Intermediate fantasy. A lot of them are mediocre at best. Even when they’re perfect examples of the archetype (or perhaps because they are) they can often feel like the authors are just going through the motions, telling a young girl’s “hero’s journey” type story without any real blood to it. But then, sometimes, I stumble onto a gem that makes it all worth it. Summer and Bird by Katherine Catmull is one of these. It is indeed a Girls Underground book, but with a complex version of the plot progression, and an entirely unique story to tell, as well as an emotional depth rarely found in books aimed at a young audience. While I found it by chance on a display at the library, I am going to have to buy my own copy now because I’m going to want to read this one again.
“‘I’m here,’ said Bird’s voice, tiny but strong. ‘I found the path. The new path is down, Summer. We’re going down.’”
Summer, 12 and Bird, 9, are sisters. One morning they wake to find their parents missing, and set out in search of them. In the forest, they find a way into another world, called Down (how perfect!). It is a world of birds, normally guided by a bird queen, but the queen has been missing for years and a terrifying woman called the Puppeteer has taken residence in her castle and enslaved the birds, forcing them to act like humans. But the Puppeteer comes from our world originally, and it is eventually revealed that she has had a hand in the misery of both worlds for awhile.
Upon arriving in Down, Bird and Summer quickly become separated and have their own adventures and challenges, each one following their own sort of GU journey, which is an interesting twist. Summer is helped by a raven and what looks like a man, and she ends up spending time in the World Tree (there are a lot of elements borrowed from Norse mythology), and then visiting the Green Home, a magical land the birds used to winter in every year but haven’t been able to access since the queen’s disappearance. Bird becomes entangled with the Puppeteer, who promises that Bird will be the new queen (although of course she has ulterior motives). Even when her family comes to rescue her, she rejects them because she wants her dream more.
The Puppeteer is defeated but not by either of the girls. And yet, instead of that being the climax and end of the story, there is much more to tell. We see how things don’t always wrap up tidily after the adversary is gone. The reunion of their family (because they do find their parents) is awkward and difficult due to a complicated backstory. In the end, it takes the strength and determination and special talents of each of the sisters to accomplish the most important task – to lead all the birds of Down to the Green Home, and make the crossing once more safe for them.
In addition to the rich world that is developed, the interesting focus on birds, the interweaving of known and unknown mythologies and folklore, there is an emotional poignancy that I’ve rarely seen so eloquently expressed. There is horror – for instance, the Puppeteer keeping a basement full of caged birds who went mad trying to be more human, and who she occasionally eats in order to temporarily understand bird language, becoming progressively more mad herself as a result – and it is unflinchingly faced and felt by the characters, and doesn’t just pass over them. There is loss and grief and resentment and blame, and these things are complex and shifting and still accompanied by love and familial bonds and other things that make it all very authentic. This book stands out from the rest, and I highly recommend it.
“These were tugboat thoughts, towing cargo ships of grief. They passed through her. She did not cling to them, or turn away. She watched them pass. Tears leaked from under her eyelids and dried on her cheeks. She was an ocean bearing heavy ships; but she was an enormous ocean.”
Stone Voice Rising by C. Lee Tocci is probably just an Honorable Mention because it sort of falls into the category of “If the story were about her…” [SPOILER ALERT] While Lilibit is the center around which all the action of the book rotates, she is not exactly the protagonist; we get into her companion Todd’s head a lot more, and he is the one who ultimately defeats the adversary.
Lilibit is only 6 when the story begins, being raised by her aunts (the fate of her parents is unknown) when one day a man comes to take her away. She has a special ability to speak to stones, and she needs to be brought to a place called Kiva to have this talent harnessed. However, on the way they are attacked, and she is lost.
Now 11 years old, Lilibit arrives at a foster home deeply damaged, having been essentially tortured for years in a medical facility. She only escaped due to a car accident. She does not remember, at first, who she is or why she was taken. She meets Todd and the other foster kids there, and soon they are all wrapped up in her quest, as a freak earthquake destroys the home and sets them free, albeit without any resources. They decide to set out for Kiva together, led by Lilibit’s returning memories and Todd’s strange dreams.
They are pursued by the adversary, Syxx, and his minions. They spend some time underground in a vast system of caverns and befriend the stone people who live there. They are helped from afar by the warrior who initially came to guide Lilibit. As their journey progresses, each of the kids comes into a power of their own and is able to help Lilibit. As I said, in the final showdown with Syxx, it is Todd who accesses his hidden power and destiny and defeats (for now) the adversary, bringing them safely to Kiva. Lilibit is definitely revealed to be More than she imagined, and she does have a classic journey, but little volition of her own other than using her connection with the stones.
I was probably about 2/3 of the way through Possess by Gretchen McNeil before I was sure it was a Girls Underground example. Not that it starts slow – in fact, it jumps right in with Bridget, 15, helping the Monsignor at her Catholic school with an exorcism. Bridget has recently started hearing the voices of demons (after her father’s murder), and the Monsignor is helping her use this “talent” to banish them from this world. A second priest arrives from the Vatican to help, although Bridget is wary of him. A large portion of the story is Bridget just trying to deal with all of this, in addition to the usual teenage stuff like avoiding the guy who has a lifelong crush on her. Though there is an excellent scene of an exorcism in a doll shop, with a lot of creepy imagery of all the dolls acting as one under the control of the demons – terrifying for any of us who, like the protagonist, find dolls automatically disturbing.
However, it eventually becomes a classic GU story – unfortunately, describing exactly how would introduce too many spoilers. Suffice it to say that there is a demon adversary and a human minion who is actually a companion who betrays her. She must rescue a family member. And in the end, the only thing that will save them all is if Bridget accepts her destiny, in a one-on-one showdown with the adversary.
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo is set in a world not our own, but echoing the geography and culture of Russia, Scandinavia and China (a welcome change from fantasy set in barely disguised versions of medieval England). Alina is an orphan, whose only friend in the world is Mal. They grow up together in an orphanage and join the First Army, where they are sent on a dangerous mission that crosses The Fold – a shadow territory filled with terrible creatures, which has torn their country apart quite literally. When they are nearly killed, Alina discovers a hidden magical ability within herself, and is quickly spirited away to join the Second Army (those with special powers), involuntarily leaving Mal behind.
Although Alina has trouble summoning her power, she is told that it will save their country by the head of the magicians, the Darkling, who is also slowly seducing her. But a wise old woman warns Alina that the Darkling is not what he seems, and she escapes alone. However, Mal finds her and soon becomes her companion on her perilous journey. Having grown distant while separated, they come to once again have a special intimacy, but nevertheless only Alina alone can defeat the Darkling, by fully understanding the nature of her magical gift.
Tyger Tyger by Kersten Hamilton is one of those GU books that gets demoted to “honorable mention” in my mind because of the lackluster confrontation with the adversary. The tension between the protagonist and the adversary is a crucial component of the GU archetype, and without it the story sort of wanders in my opinion.
Teagan, a teenager who’s in a fairly good place in her life, suddenly loses her mother to a shadowy creature just after her mysterious Irish cousin arrives. As she deals with this death, her father is then stolen from her. Her cousin Finn takes Teagan and her younger brother in and out of the otherworld looking for answers. They are helped by her Irish Traveller grandmother, who sends them back into the otherworld on a quest to rescue her father and discover her true nature. However, when they find her father, and finally confront the dark fairy king who has captured him, the adversary is defeated rather easily and it all wraps up after that. There’s not much volition on Teagan’s part, as she is mostly just following around people who know what’s going on more than she does.
That same lack of volition is partly what makes me categorize Wondrous Strange by Lesley Livingston as an honorable mention as well. Kelley, 17, an orphan raised by her aunt, is suddenly promoted to the lead in her theatre company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. One night in the park she rescues a drowning horse that turns out not to be a horse at all, and suddenly it seems there are many otherworldly creatures running around, and many of them are particularly interested in her. Her only protection is a changeling guard who begins to fall in love with her just as he discovers her true identity – unknown to Kelley herself. The adversary appears to be Mabh, a fairy queen, but the supposedly good fairy king is not exactly what he seems.
Kelley and her companions struggle to defeat Mabh’s plan of bringing forth the Wild Hunt to terrorize mortals, but Kelley herself is mostly swept up in what’s going on around her, and often just trying to stay alive. She doesn’t really stand out as a strong protagonist, but that’s what you tend to get with these supernatural romance novels (which unfortunately comprise the bulk of new GU-type YA books these days).
I picked up Enchanted Ivy by Sarah Beth Durst because the library didn’t have her other book, Ice, that I’d had on my “potential GU stories” list, and as I suspected it turned out to be a GU story of its own.
Lily, 16 years old, has been mostly raised by her grandfather since her mother suffers from a mental condition that Lily is also taking medicine to prevent. The thing she wants most in the world is to attend her grandfather’s alma mater, Princeton University. When he takes her along to his reunion, his fellow alumni surprise her with a special test – if she succeeds in finding something called the “ivy key” she will automatically be accepted when she applies.
Of course, nothing is that easy. She finds the key, with the help of a mysterious and strange boy, but it only brings up more questions. Lily crosses into the otherworld – which has its own Princeton University, populated by magical creatures – because she herself is revealed to be more than she ever imagined. She is in great danger, along with the rest of the world if she cannot stop certain malevolent creatures from gaining access to her world. At the same time, her grandfather is injured and her mother is ailing, and she must go again into the otherworld to find her mother’s true family and hopefully a cure for her malady. Her companions are the mysterious boy, also not entirely human, and another boy set to be her guard – her two companions fight with each other more than they help her at times.
Eventually it is revealed that there is a single adversary, someone she never would have expected. He hands her over to the opposition to be killed, but instead they use her to enter our world and wreak havoc. In the end, she must make a bold and risky move to defeat the adversary and save her family.
“The day spread its strangeness before her resigned eyes, its horror growing thin and wispy as it sank away. The flow came back into the world once more, and the warning became a memory, eagerly forgotten because it was useless to remember it. The warning had come. She had ignored it. There was nothing more to be said.”
Girls Underground books usually involve some kind of magic, but I think the magic in The Changeover by Margaret Mahy is some of the most nuanced and vivid I’ve read thus far, echoing some of my own experience. It deserves its status as a favorite in modern witchcraft and paganism.
Laura, a teenager, feels a strong internal warning one morning – something she’s come to trust after past warnings were validated, like the time her father left them – but doesn’t expect the form of the danger that she’s headed for. While walking with her young brother, she encounters a strange new shop and a perilous shop-keeper, who gives the brother an innocuous-seeming gift that makes it possible for the shop-keeper to slowly drain his vitality. When doctors are unable to diagnose or treat her rapidly ailing brother, Laura turns to a school acquaintance, who she just knows in her gut is a witch. He is, in fact, along with his mother and grandmother, and they become companion and guides, respectively. They want to help Laura but know the adversary will immediately sense their power and not let them get near enough to challenge him. So they suggest a changeover – turn Laura into a witch herself, and she can confront the unsuspecting adversary.
Laura embarks on an initiatory journey to the otherworld, in one of the best such sequences I’ve ever read in these books. She returns transformed. In the final showdown, she alone manages to trick the adversary and reverse the energy flow, not only saving her brother but ultimately destroying the adversary.
“Even without witchcraft, the world grew slightly unbelievable, as if part of her were a reading eye and most of her was a character moving through a story – a character, moreover, who had begun to suspect that she might not be entirely real, might be nothing but a puppet, or words on a printed page.”
While not every Girl Underground actually descends, literally, beneath the earth (many of their journeys are only symbolically chthonic), it is still a common element of the stories. I always note it in bold in my summaries when a protagonist goes underground. So imagine my delight when recently not one but two sequels to separate GU books were published in which the girl returns to the magical otherworld, only this time the emphasis is on the world below.
“Prue, since first being introduced to Wildwood, had learned to not consider the minutiae of things, but rather take each episode as it came. Otherwise, she figured, the ridiculousness might fry some essential lobe of her brain – the sensible part.”
Under Wildwood is the second book written by Colin Meloy and illustrated by his wife Carson Ellis. (I profiled the first book here.) It is equally captivating and clever, with a new adversary (and a side storyline involving two new girls that could make a GU story of its own), and with the bonus that an important part of the action takes place in the underground mole city beneath Wildwood. Sadly, the book ends without resolution as there will be a third and final book in the series.
“September had changed profoundly from a girl who desperately wanted such things to be real to one who knew they were real. Such a change is less like getting a new haircut than getting a new head.”
The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There is the second beautifully-titled book from Catherynne Valente which follows the adventures of September (see The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, which I profiled on this blog before it was even published as a physical book). This one provides an interesting twist – the adversary is September’s own shadow, having been separated from her in the first book and in the interim gone on to become queen of the underworld realm below Fairyland (an example, perhaps, of Girl Becomes Adversary?). This book continues the GU theme, even including elements not found in the first, like the betrayal by a companion (which is rather heartbreaking). It also begins with a glimpse into what life is like when the girl has returned home – even if she wanted to return – but still longs for the otherworld.
The Dreamhunter Duet by Elizabeth Knox (Dreamhunter and Dreamquake, which really should be read back to back) only qualifies as an Honorable Mention as a Girls Underground story, but the books are so unique and fascinating that I wanted to profile them here anyway just to draw attention to them.
Laura is coming of age in 1905, in a world just like ours except for one thing – twenty years before, her father discovered the Place, a land invisible and inaccessible to most, but constituting a strange new world for a small percentage of people who can pass through the boundary. In the Place, there is no sun but it is always light, there is no color or moisture, and no signs of life – but for some special people, falling asleep there brings vivid dreams, dreams they can share with others once they return to the regular world and sleep next to them. Laura’s father becomes the most famous and powerful of these dreamhunters, although he has been emotionally distant since her mother died.
Laura and her cousin Rose – along with other teenagers – try their luck at entering the Place, and Laura succeeds. But her career as a dreamhunter is immediately threatened by her questionable talent for catching nightmares. She soon suspects there is a conspiracy surrounding the Place, led by the government entity in charge, and with her dreamhunter companion Sandy, Rose, and the rest of her family, begins to uncover it. Her closest companion, however, is a creature she makes out of sand and imbues with life via an old family magic she discovers.
Laura’s father disappears, along with many other dreamhunters, and Laura must get to the root of the nefarious plans by corrupt government agents (one in particular, who heads the dreamhunting regulatory body, is probably the primary adversary) that are threatening their whole world.
As I said, the story only loosely fits the Girls Underground plot. But it stands out for me amongst the many, many GU books I have read. Knox’s Place is a truly unique concept, especially once you discover what it really is, and how it came to be. The relationship between Laura and the man/monster she creates is also special and different. The setting of 100 years ago worked well for the story without being overly emphasized – it wasn’t a period piece per se, just one more aspect of an overall convincing and engaging story. Unfortunately, the best parts of these books are also the biggest spoilers, and in this case I don’t want to say too much. Go read them for yourself, it’s well worth it.