“She felt removed from everything, a sleepwalker who had stepped off the path of normal life and into the forest where anything could happen.”
Holly Black has written three brilliant Girls Underground books in her Modern Faerie series – Tithe, Ironside and Valiant – that are all interconnected, therefore I’m covering them together. (She’s also in the middle of a fairly GU-style graphic novel series called The Good Neighbors that I may well review in a future post.)
The first book, Tithe, begins with Kaye, 16, who has just moved back to her old home with her troubled mother, the home where as a child Kaye spent much of her time playing with faeries, friends she now fears may have been only imagined. One night she stumbles upon a wounded man and helps him, which begins to entangle her in the battle between faerie kingdoms. Kaye’s mother is too self-absorbed to notice what’s going on, and her grandmother is only concerned with her bad habits, so she is on her own in regards to her family. Her old faerie companions return and seem to be helping, although they also put her in further danger. The man she helped, a knight, may not be on her side, he may even be her adversary, and yet she is powerfully attracted to him, even as it seems he is leading her to her doom. There is an evil queen, as well as a slightly-less-evil queen, each of whom have many minions. In a way, Kaye has spent her whole life up until that point forgetting herself, as she only now discovers her true identity (as usual, she is more than she seemed). Time is running out, as the tithe is to be paid in only a few days. She must solve riddles, rescue a human companion who has become trapped in the otherworld (which is, fittingly, underground), expose a plot, and reveal the true adversary. She finishes with a foot in each world.
Kaye returns in Ironside, when she embarks on another quest, this time to rescue the “real” Kaye (who was switched with her) and bring her back to the human world. She also mistakenly asks her knight (now king) for a quest in order to prove her love, and he gives her one that seems impossible, but that eventually she realizes can be solved as if it were a riddle. She has the same adversary, but acquires a new companion. In the end, it is the king she must save, by being clever and brave.
Valiant takes place in the same general world, but with different characters. Valerie, 17, runs away to the city after being betrayed by those who were closest to her, including her mother. She falls in with a group of street kids who live in the subway (underground, of course) and are tangled up with the otherworld. It turns out that one of the boys works for an ominous troll who may be killing other faeries. By acting foolishly, Valerie ends up bound to work for the troll too, but starts seeing him in a new light (again, the one who seems to be the adversary turns out very different). Meanwhile, she discovers that one of his potions can be taken like a drug by humans to give them some of the faerie powers, and she becomes addicted, forgetting everything important. Eventually, the true adversary is revealed, and she must defeat them with her newly-learned warrior skills in order to save herself, her friends, and the troll as well. After one of her old school friends finds her, they briefly return home during the adventure, but time is running out so they must continue on. After a betrayal by a companion, she confronts and fights the adversary alone, exposes their true nature, and saves her friends. While she returns to “normal” life, she also keeps a foot in the otherworld.
These are all “classic” GU examples, in that they follow most of the details, even less common ones. The protagonists are beautifully written, strong but flawed, and the faerie world is entirely believable. I am also biased in their favor in that I prefer GU stories where the girls don’t entirely return to normal life in the end.