The Wood by Chelsea Bobulski was one of the rare times that I didn’t mind a small romantic subplot in a YA novel – it didn’t take over the story, it was actually a meaningful interaction between the characters, and it didn’t end “happily ever after”! Bravo. Too many YA books these days (especially in the “supernatural” or “fantasy” categories) are entirely consumed by facile romance.

Winter, 16, has taken over guardianship of a magical woods, from her father who disappeared almost two years ago without a trace. They are from a long line of hereditary keepers of this secret, bound to patrol the liminal space between the worlds for travellers who accidentally slip through portals from other lands and other times. The wood is dangerous for both guardians and travellers alike, and Winter must follow strict rules to stay alive.

One day she meets a traveller who is searching for his own missing parents, and Winter fatefully decides to break some rules and help him, even hiding him in her house from her grieving and distracted mother. As they compare notes on their mutual family problems, they uncover a plot against the whole system of humans and magical folk who mutually protect the wood. Winter faces off against the adversary, but there is still one more secret – and a betrayal – that will shake the foundations of her world.

The Boneshaker by Kate Milford may be the first Girls Underground book I’ve come across where the Adversary is the Devil himself (Old Scratch makes the occasional appearance in GU movies, but a search of my book profiles turns up nothing). Definitely appropriate for a story set in 1913 Missouri and focusing on an abandoned town at a crossroads!

Natalie, 13, lives in the town of Arcane (just a ways down from the aforementioned crossroads), where it is said a local musician once made a deal with the Devil. One day a strange medicine show comes into town, featuring all sorts of wonders and entertainments (the mechanical oracle is especially intriguing). During an intense few days, Natalie begins to realize her mother has been seriously ill for some time, and is horrified to find that her father is willing to do anything to cure her – even deal with the suspicious Doctor Limberleg (what a fantastic name!) who runs the show. With her frenemy companion (and that wily musician) she sets out to uncover the secrets of the mysterious doctor and save not only her mother, but the whole town (and possibly more).

There is a slow revelation of the town’s dark past, and the role Natalie’s own family plays – she is really the only one equipped to stop this monster. Also, an emphasis on storytelling and its vital importance.

When the Devil finally shows his true self, she must confront him alone at the notorious and liminal crossroads, resist the temptations he offers, and put an end to a long reign of evil.

 

Just resurfaced after an extended Alice Days holiday, and had a chance to update my list of Alice movies with several new ones (mostly awful, but one really interesting short art film from the 80s). Check it out (toward the bottom of the page) the next time you need an infusion of Wonderland!

Not a Girls Underground song specifically, but this little Tom Waits ditty about life in the underground feels appropriate nonetheless.

NB: I highly recommend watching the MST3K version of this movie if you feel some strange desire to watch it at all, because then at least there will be comedic commentary alongside this utter dreck. This ended up being only an Honorable Mention, so not really worth the agony – but I’m here to take the bullet by watching all potential GU movies in the interest of research!

Alien From L.A. (1988) stars Kathy Ireland as Wanda, a resident of Los Angeles with an inexplicable and extremely annoying squeaky voice. After being dumped by her boyfriend, she finds out that her archaeologist father has died while exploring in North Africa. She travels there to sort out his affairs only to discover his notes about Atlantis (which was apparently a UFO which crashed and sunk). Wanda finds a hidden chamber underneath her father’s apartment and down she goes into the underground!

Deep beneath the surface, she discovers her father is being held and tortured as a spy. She enlists the help of a miner named Gus and a rogue named Charmin to help rescue him. She also manages to go from supposedly “nerdy” to supposedly “hot” along the way, completing the most ridiculous and superficial of GU transformations. Wanda herself is also now being pursued by the same Atlantean government agents who are holding her father, as well as minions of a crime lord (played by future Oompa Loompa Deep Roy!).

Eventually she is captured by a general, and her companions fight the evil forces so she and her father can escape (so, no real one-on-one showdown with a singular Adversary). She returns to L.A. and hangs out at the beach in a bikini (because now she is hot).

“As I dropped, my mom’s words flashed through my mind: Wherever we’re together, it’s home. I was finally on my way to get Mom back, and in some strange way, it felt like I was going home.”

I immediately knew that Hyacinth and the Secrets Beneath by Jacob Sager Weinstein was likely to be a GU story just from the title. Not only a titular girl, but a reference to the underground (like these)! It also happens to be the third GU book I’ve encountered which is set in a magical version of London (the others being Un Lun Dun and Neverwhere).

Hyacinth, 12, comes to spend a summer in London with her flaky, distracted mother, who grew up there. One day she innocently attempts to merge the separate faucets for hot and cold water and things turn weird – a magical drop of glowing water escapes, and monsters made of dirt appear and kidnap her mother in order to force Hyacinth to recapture the drop before it causes too much trouble. Fortunately, an old lady who lives in the building seems to know all about this strange magical water and helps Hyacinth, leading her underground where secret magic rivers flow beneath the city (unfortunately for Hyacinth, mostly through the sewers).

SPOILERS They make good progress, even avoiding a dangerous boy and giant boar, and have found the drop and are close to finding Hyacinth’s  mother, when everything is turned on its head. In one of the most severe companion betrayals I have encountered, the old lady is revealed to be the Adversary, and Hyacinth discovers that the monsters weren’t really all that bad, and the boy and boar were not dangerous and in fact become her new companions. Now she must stop the lady from gaining more power and possibly destroying the world, which also entails rescuing her mother (whose blood is a crucial ingredient in a dark spell). The final showdown, often a magical battle, in this case also involves a knife fight.

Looks like there’s already a sequel coming out with a new adversary for Hyacinth.

The Eye of the North by Sinead O’Hart makes a promising start as a Girls Underground premise, but ultimately only registers as an Honorable Mention due to the fact that most of the time, she is separate from her “companions,” and the lack of a definitive one-on-one showdown with the Adversary (in part because there are too many Adversaries!).

Emmeline’s world changes one day when her distant, negligent parents disappear, presumed dead, and she is shipped off to Paris to live with a relative. On the boat there, she encounters a plucky street kid named Thing, who becomes a companion of sorts, though they are soon separated and he goes on a parallel journey toward the same goal. Emmeline discovers that her parents were involved in a secret organization, attempting to thwart a madman who is trying to raise the kraken from the northern ice so he can control it and rule the world. She encounters allies and many new adversaries (each also trying to gain control of the kraken) as she repeatedly escapes and is recaptured on her way to rescue her parents. There is a moment at the end where she realizes that she has the power, but overall I still felt that it wasn’t quite a full GU story. Entertaining, but a bit too much going on as well, so many interesting concepts (like the Northwitch, made of ice) were not fully explored.

“The writing on the chamber under her heart said, I knew it would come to this.”

Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher is one of those rare gems that manages to both follow the classic GU tropes perfectly and still have something original and beautiful to say. Also, it’s the second story I’ve covered to have a protagonist named Summer!

Summer, 11, lives with her extremely anxious and overprotective mother. In fact, interestingly enough, while usually a Girl Underground is either an orphan or has distracted, unavailable parents, the opposite seems to end up having the same effect – Summer’s mother is so overwrought with worry that she isn’t really connecting at all to her daughter, and is effectively no better than a totally uninvolved parent.

One day Baba Yaga’s chicken-footed hut ambles past Summer’s back yard, and the witch sets Summer off on an adventure the girl had always longed for, but never fully understood. She is transported to another world, Orcus, where animals talk and wear waistcoats (and sometimes turn into houses), and where – of course- something horrible is eating away at the magic, something only Summer is capable of fixing.

As she accumulates companions and gains help from strangers along the way, she is also hounded by a horrible, destructive man and his minions for no reason she can discern. This time the adversary is not cartoonishly evil like many, but perplexingly unattached to the havoc he wreaks (which I found to be an enjoyable and somewhat more believable departure from the usual villains). She does, however, have a final confrontation, almost entirely alone – and while she doesn’t manage to save everything, she saves what she can, and it’s enough to start the healing process for Orcus.

There’s so much magic in the details of this story, and in the telling, that I am loathe to try to capture it here and suggest instead that you just go read it!

Although only available as an e-book (a shame, as I much prefer reading on paper over reading on a screen), it is also up for free in serialized form here.

Beyond the Walls is a three-part French miniseries (basically the length of a longish movie) that follows the journey of Lisa, an emotionally shut-down woman who inherits a house from a mysterious stranger. This is possibly the best GU story I’ve encountered that takes place entirely inside a house. It is both creepy and emotionally powerful, and I like how Lisa is consistently strong in spirit, unable to be swayed by fear or temptation.

After hearing weird noises coming from inside the walls, she smashes through and finds herself in a labyrinthine, windowless, endless house – mostly empty but for the occasional terrifying once-human monsters called Others. She eventually runs into a single companion, Julian, who has been stuck in the house for years – though for him, it’s 100 years ago (time is strange in the house). It becomes apparent that those who end up in the house are struggling with some kind of deep guilt, and if they can’t face it they eventually become the Others. After many trials, Lisa finds a door that leads to a forest (though still, somehow, inside the house) and is reunited with the little sister she lost (partly due to her own negligence), who is living in a cottage by a lake with a mysterious older woman named Rose. It is always day there, always pleasant, and both Rose and her sister want her to stay there forever. But Lisa is not fooled by this charade and eventually finds her way back into the house proper to search for Julian, who she became separated from in the forest. They fall in love but realize they could only be together if they stayed there. Instead, they decide to pursue a return to the outside world, and venture down, down, down to the basement where a giant vortex-like hole leads to parts unknown. Rose reappears to try to tempt Lisa into staying, but instead she makes a leap of faith.

Today on a whim I decided to go through my list of GU examples I’ve covered so far, looking only at the books, and count how many were written by male versus female authors.

A quick tally shows a 3:1 ratio of female authors over male.

This isn’t exactly surprising, for a story type that focuses so much on girls’ journeys, but I do wonder how that stacks up againstthe larger world of fiction (and in particular the fantasy, YA, and YA fantasy subgenres). Has anyone done any studies on what percentage of authors write main characters of their same gender? I’d be curious.

“The traffic flow from folklore to fiction and film has always been heavy.” - Maria Tatar, Secrets Beyond the Door

An exploration of story…

In which I describe examples of the Girls Underground archetype that I have discovered in literature and film. For more information regarding the concept, including its earlier incarnations in fairytales and mythology, visit the pages linked above. Here is a list of all the examples I have covered thus far.

Alice Days

Celebrate one of the primary inspirations for Girls Underground - Alice in Wonderland - with a holiday down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass! Check out the Alice Days page for party ideas, movie recommendations, and more.

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