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“Said my Lord to my Lady as he rode away: ‘Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the hay.’”
I found Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough on the new YA fiction shelves at my public library, by choosing the first book that called out to me, seemingly at random. Reading the summary, I thought it might be GU. Turns out, it’s more of an honorable mention than a true Girls Underground story. However, I think it deserves a place here, especially because it is such a unique and truly chilling story.
It’s the summer of 1958, and Cora and her little sister Mimi are sent away from London to live with their great-aunt Ida in the country, because their mother is in the hospital indefinitely and their father can’t handle them alone. They soon become friends with two brothers who live down the road. Aunt Ida is not happy to have them, but will not explain why – she simply lays down a whole bunch of rules, such as not going to the old church nearby, and never opening any doors or windows in the house. Right away, strange things start happening, and Cora begins to unravel a dark and terrifying history behind this otherwise unremarkable English hamlet.
Cora’s little sister is in grave danger from a creature who was once a man, a creature called Long Lankin who creeps through the grass on all fours with his tall, slender body, hoping to prey on the life force of young children. The passages describing this monster are downright scary even for an adult reader – I am always impressed when a book can make me want to turn on all the lights in the house late at night.
While Cora has absentee parents, travels to a new and strange place, meets helpful companions, must rescue a family member, and defeat an adversary before it’s too late, it’s still not quite a GU story. In part because at the end, Cora is not the one facing off alone against the monster. Nor does she really have an extensive adventure. Picked apart, the details mostly fit, but the frisson of the GU story just isn’t quite there. Nonetheless, this book is absolutely worth reading. The setting of small-town, post-War Britain really adds something and helps the characters to come alive. And as I said, you’ll be keeping the lights on, especially for the last 100 pages.
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.
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).
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.
The China Garden by Liz Berry is probably just an Honorable Mention as far as specific GU plot points, but I can’t overlook a story that begins by referring to the myth of Persephone’s descent, and includes an actual descent underground at the climax.
Clare has just finished her exams and is preparing for university when her mother announces she will be taking a job at an old estate in the English countryside called Ravensmere. Clare was planning to stay in London, but feels inexplicably drawn to accompany her mother. Once at Ravensmere, she has an instant connection to the place, and learns that in fact, her mother grew up in the area (unbeknownst to her). But Ravensmere is under threat now from a greedy, scheming land agent (the only person who really approximates an adversary) who wants to destroy it for profit – and with it, the mysterious “Benison” (blessing) that has been protected for centuries.
In just a few intense weeks, Clare uncovers the estate’s hidden history, finds a secret and magical garden, meets and falls for a young man from the neighboring farm, discovers her own latent psychic abilities, and begins to understand that she is next in a long line of guardians of this land. She treads a sacred maze and has visions that are leading her to a powerful secret, but she resists this calling, wanting to still have a normal life.
Eventually the ailing estate owner kicks out the evil land agent (one of the reasons this isn’t really GU, since Clare never confronts him), but has a stroke before he can tell Clare and Mark how to save the Benison. They must embark on a dangerous journey underground to find their life’s purpose and the land’s strength.
“It’s amazing how you can be who you are even without your proper body! How could I be me without my own whiskers? Without my own tail? And yet here you are, you’re a fox, but you’re still Gisella. It’s a mystery.”
The Old Country by Mordicai Gerstein is a slim novel that reads like an expanded fairytale, and tells a unique and beautiful story. It is really more of an Honorable Mention as far as the GU archetype goes, but it touches on the plot point of “losing herself” (and then finding herself) so well I wanted to give it its own entry.
Gisella lives with her family in an unspecified Old World country on the brink of its first modern war. With her brother conscripted by the army, she volunteers to go into the woods and hunt the fox that has been stealing the family’s chickens. Once there, she finds herself in the midst of a strange trial, with animals as judge, jury and lawyers, to decide if the fox is indeed guilty enough to be killed for her crimes. Gisella ends up staring too long into the eyes of this fox, against her great-aunt’s many previous warnings, and they switch bodies.
[SPOILERS] Gisella returns home, as a fox, only to find it abandoned. Her family has all been arrested as spies and brought to a prison camp. With the help of a magical creature named Quick (who helps her, in true fairytale fashion, because she had previously helped him), and her cat Nubia, she sets off on a quest to rescue her family and get her own body back from the fox, Flame. Along the way they also pick up a grumpy bear as a companion. (Gisella also does spend some time literally underground, sleeping and hiding, since she is after all a fox.)
The animals get into the prison camp by pretending to be a circus act, which the emperor is fond of. They arrive just as he is meeting with the leader of the opposing side in the war, and suddenly all the other animals return for yet another trial – that of the emperor and queen, for the destruction they have caused with their war. Their power is overthrown (though not exactly in favor of anything better), and Gisella’s family escapes to the New World.
Before they leave, Gisella and Flame meet once more, face to face (Flame, I think, is the adversary here, having stolen her body and taunted her along the way, even though it’s not as clear-cut as many GU stories). Flame relents and offers to switch them back, but in a surprising turn (especially given the narrative set-up at the beginning of the book), Gisella chooses to remain in fox form.
“I forgive you, and wish you well, Flame. I am a fox of the Old Country.”
She realizes that she has changed so much on her adventure that she no longer wants the thing she’s been fighting for. And in fact, truly knows who she is now. Which is a very fitting end for a Girl Underground.
“She hated this place. Nothing made sense. Nothing worked as it was supposed to. She was supposed to be learning things as she went along, gaining strength for her final battle. All she was doing was losing things, one thing at a time.”
This one should probably go under Honorable Mentions too, but it deserves its own post just because it was such an excellently-written book. Breadcrumbs by Anna Ursu takes its inspiration from the Snow Queen fairytale written by Hans Christian Anderson, but truly stands out as its own story.
Hazel, 11, has been best friends with next door neighbor Jack since she was six; no one else understands her. But one day, Jack suddenly pulls away from her for no apparent reason . Hazel has been raised on fantasy books and wants to believe there is some exotic cause for Jack’s behavior, but fears he has just become one more person who rejects her. Ursu takes a long time (about half the book) building up your empathy for Hazel and her situation, before the adventure part of the story begins. Her attention to detail, making the “real” world so real, makes it that much more exciting and strange when things suddenly become otherworldly.
Because Jack hasn’t just changed his mind about Hazel. In fact, the cause is a tiny shard of demon-made mirror that has fallen into his eye and turned his heart cold. Going out sledding, he meets a white witch and quickly agrees to go off with her. Hazel discovers the truth of his disappearance from one of the boys who always taunts her, but who is terrified by what he secretly witnessed and knows only Hazel will believe him. She decides to go off and rescue Jack, even though he’s turned against her, because that’s what friends do. She crosses the threshold of the woods where Jack was last seen, and immediately enters a different world.
There are wolf sentries and magical swanskins and unhelpful Fates and dangerous denizens in this wood. There are markets where you can buy potions of forgetfulness, and adults who seem helpful and kind but will trap you forever. What’s interesting is that Hazel, so familiar with fantasy stories, recognizes the storyline she’s a part of, the mythical journey she’s on. She often refers to books like Narnia and Wrinkle in Time and Coraline. In fact, she even notices that unlike most girls on such an adventure, she doesn’t have any friendly companions to help her.
The lack of companions, and the lack of much interaction with the adversary (or even a final showdown, since it turns out that the witch wants nothing, and will not fight her, and she needs to get through to Jack’s heart if she wants to save him), means this isn’t quite a Girls Underground story. But her quest to rescue her friend, her entry into the otherworld, and her keen awareness of her own archetype makes up for it.
“Hazel had read enough books to know that a line like this one is the line down which your life breaks in two. And you have to think very carefully about whether you want to cross it, because once you do it’s very hard to get back to the world you left behind. And sometimes you break a barrier that no one knew existed, and then everything you knew before crossing the line is gone. But sometimes you have a friend to rescue. And so you take a deep breath and then step over the line and into the darkness ahead.”
A few more books that fit the tone of Girls Underground but are missing some crucial elements.
Riddle of the Wren by Charles de Lint
Minda, 17, lives a mundane life, her mother dead, her father no comfort. But she is haunted in her dreams by an evil creature named Ildran. One night, in the dreamworld, she meets Jan, who both initiates her into this new life by giving her special tools and protective talismans, and asks for her help.
Minda sets out on her journey and immediately loses her way, ending up in a different world. She finds companions, including an animal, and fights the minions of the adversary. Going from world to world, she does battle, manages to rescue Jan, and learns she is More than she knew. She faces the adversary alone, and reveals the fraud behind his power.
Under the Green Hill by Laura L. Sullivan
Meg, a teenager, is sent with her siblings to live with old relatives in England when an illness sweeps through her own country. Strange rules are in set down for them immediately, which they mostly ignore. But the danger is real, for faeries are abroad and it is time for a battle in which humans must fight.
Guided by a boy named Gul, the children meet the Seelie Queen and quickly become entangled in faerie business. Meg’s brother volunteers to fight in the battle, and she must rescue him from this fate. But the situation is complicated, and there is no single clear adversary. Still, in the end, Meg understands she is More than she thought, and finds a courage she never expected.
Runemarks by Joanne Harris
Maddy, 14, lives in a world where magic is feared and reviled, but she has had certain abilities since she can remember. Her only companion and confidante is a traveller named One-Eye who comes to her village every year and teaches her to use her powers. One day he asks her to retrieve a special item for him in the world below, and opens a door for her to go underground, past the realm of goblins (where she temporarily receives some assistance from a reluctant goblin). She finds the object but cannot get it yet, and in the meantime befriends a man named Lucky who turns out to be more than he appears to be.
Maddy ends up on an epic journey, meeting gods and goblins and men, all in an attempt to save her friend One-Eye from a prophesied doom. Her adversary is unclear at first, but is eventually revealed to be the Nameless, a god who wants to destroy all the worlds. She must go to Hel to fight him – but she doesn’t really end up defeating him personally. She does, however, discover she is More than she ever imagined.
Considering the season, it seems appropriate to touch upon The Nutcracker, that ubiquitous Christmas ballet, which was actually based on a 19th century story by E.T.A. Hoffman. I haven’t seen this since childhood, however, so this will be a brief entry.
The Nutcracker probably only qualifies as an Honorable Mention as a Girls Underground story, but there are some definite elements present. Clara is initiated into the otherworld via a toy given to her by her strange godfather. When the toy is broken by her brother, she cares for it. That night, another world grows up around her, and in the midst of a battle between gingerbread men and mice soldiers, her beloved Nutcracker (now life size) is threatened by the adversary, the Mouse King. Clara intervenes and saves the Nutcracker, who becomes a handsome prince. She eventually becomes the Queen of a fabulous kingdom of sweets.
For a more thorough investigation of The Nutcracker as an archetypal katabasis story, and Clara’s relation to several other GU heroines from Alice and Dorothy all the way back to Persephone and Inanna, see Catherynne Valente’s essay “Follow the Yellow Brick Road: Katabasis and the Female Hero in Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and The Nutcracker Ballet” [Word doc from her website].
“All this time I’d been afraid of leaving home. Now I saw that my talents could rip me from it while I stood in my very own bedroom.”
In The Keening by A. LaFaye, Lyza is a teenager living in rural Maine during the flu epidemic of 1918. Her mother dies and her father retreats into his own mental illness, carving ghostly faces in wood all day and waiting for his wife’s spirit to visit him. Lyza must rescue him from relatives who want to lock him up in a sanitarium, and find a way for both of them to live without her mother’s assistance. With her friend Jake as a companion, she travels to the “big city” of Portland to search for her mother’s friend who might help her – but when she discovers a secret about Jake, her whole world changes and she comes to accept the truth about what she really is.
There is not enough of a solid adversary or otherworldly journey to quite qualify this as Girls Underground, but the theme of discovering her unusual abilities and the eerie atmosphere make it a worthwhile Honorable Mention.