I’ve talked about Alice Days several times here before – my annual festival of all things Alice in Wonderland. Just wanted to note that I have now put all the information about celebrating this holiday on the Girls Underground site right here (and linked to on the left sidebar), for those who might want to take up the tradition. You won’t regret it!
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).
Often I have found that the least fantastical GU stories are the most grim. Such is the case in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, a 1976 film starring an extraordinary Jodi Foster as Rynn, age 13. Rynn is desperately trying to hide the fact that she is living in her house alone, lying about the whereabouts of her absent father (and there is initially no word on where her mother is, either). At the very beginning she is approached by the adversary, on Halloween – a pedophile neighbor who is immediately creepy. He keeps returning periodically, proving his power over her (in one particularly gruesome scene, he kills her pet hamster with a lit cigarette), being generally lecherous. Meanwhile, her landlady is potentially threatening to the solitary existence Rynn is trying to protect, and a friendly policeman may help or could ruin everything.
Rynn’s only confidante is an older boy, Mario, who she quickly grows close to. She reveals the secret of her missing father, and several other secrets besides, and even though the truth paints a somewhat frightening picture of Rynn herself, Mario never wavers, and helps her. But in the final confrontation with the adversary, Mario is ill and Rynn must fend for herself. Fortunately, she is not afraid of getting her hands dirty.
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.
Hint: Many GU books are titled after the protagonist. If a young adult fantasy has a female name for its title, I always check the plot – often as not, it fits. Sabriel by Garth Nix is no exception.
At the age of 18, about to graduate school, Sabriel has lived most of her life in Ancelstierre, a country on the other side of a wall which separates it from a magical land called the Old Kingdom. Her father is a famous and special sort of necromancer, called the Abhorsen, who banishes dead spirits that have risen back to the afterlife – he visits only rarely and teaches her too little of his work, though she learns some magic at her school. One day she receives a message from her father – he is trapped behind the gates of death, and dangerous spirits are abroad. Sabriel must journey alone to the Old Kingdom to find his body, try to rescue his spirit, and then hopefully repair some of the damage that has been done in his absence.
After defeating or delaying a few malicious creatures at the outset of her journey, she reaches her father’s home and acquires a companion – a spirit in the form of a cat named Mogget. He and her father’s other spirit-helpers assist her in defending the home long enough for her to escape. As Sabriel and Mogget continue on their quest towards the royal city in the north, she learns the nature of her adversary (a mad sorcerer) and his terrible undead minions, as well as the fact that she is now herself the new Abhorsen, and expected to do the work of that office, which she has not been well prepared for. She also gains another companion when she frees a man from a 200-year-old spell.
Together they reach the royal city and the exact place where the adversary both began his assault on the whole kingdom, and entrapped her father. She frees her father’s spirit, but is unable to save his life. Meanwhile, the adversary is only delayed a little by her efforts. Sabriel and her companions must return to Ancelstierre and find the adversary’s mortal body and destroy it. But of course, he is hot on their heels and may bring an apocalypse in his wake.
In the final face-off, one companion is injured and the other has his own agenda, so Sabriel must find a way to defeat the adversary herself. She finds a clever way to subdue him, although it may not be the final end of him.
I held out on watching the television show Once Upon a Time for quite some time. I read a couple of fairytale blogs and they talked about it a lot, but it felt a bit too silly for my tastes. And indeed, there are a lot of aspects to this show that make me wince, most of all the writing surrounding the beat-you-over-the-head theme of “true love solves all”. It’s more than a little saccharine at times. The special effects feel outdated, and the acting is largely mediocre.
However. Three things kept me interested. First was the excellent Robert Carlyle as Rumplestiltskin (especially when he was being his most evil, he is delicious, although to my dismay it seemed his Scottish accent weakened a little over the course of the season). Second was the intertwining of this-world and other-world, which resonates with me personally. And third was the reason I finally decided to sit down and give it a chance in the first place: it seemed like it might be a Girls Underground story. And I think it is.
Emma Swan, abandoned as a baby and alone as an adult, is one day approached by the son she gave up for adoption years ago. He tells her that she is the only person who can break a curse over his entire town, one originally set in place by his adoptive mother, who is in reality an evil queen of a magical world – a world where every person in the town comes from, although none of them remember. Of course Emma doesn’t believe any of this (although we know it is true, and are given frequent flashbacks to that otherworld to see how this all came to be), but she brings the child – Henry – home and quickly becomes entangled in the local community.
Emma’s primary goal is to rescue Henry from his adoptive mother (even though she doesn’t believe in the fairytale story, the woman is still clearly a bad person), which is a common plotline for adult Girls Underground. She has companions in this, friends she makes in the town (one of whom betrays her, as often happens). The adversary – the evil queen/mayor – has her own minions, townsfolk who are in her pocket and help her try to defeat Emma. (There is also a secondary evil character, Rumplestiltskin/Mr. Gold, who has hidden motives of his own. He owns a pawn shop that functions nicely as the GU “junk shop” archetype.) However, the most important goal is to break the curse on the town, for which Emma will have to believe in the fairytale reality, and that takes a lot of work.
Interestingly, at the end of the first season, when it all comes to a head, Emma ends up working with her adversary, when the wicked queen’s apple poisons not Emma but Henry. Saving him simultaneously breaks the curse, and temporarily defeats the queen. It also gives Emma certain knowledge of the otherworld and their shared history, revealing her to truly be what Henry claimed all along – the savior of the whole fairytale world.
What happens next remains to be seen.
Country music act Eight Belles just released an album (with an eponymous song) called Girls Underground. Not really my style of music, but interesting nonetheless. I wonder what her inspiration was – I certainly doubt she’s ever heard of my blog or concept, but the exact phrasing is quite a coincidence.