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“Unfortunately, confusing and crazy ordeals are often the only way to get to the bottom of incomprehensible things.”

I really wanted to like The Land of Yesterday by K. A. Reynolds more than I did. I picked it up because the cover is one of the most Girls Underground I have seen – a girl literally falling! – and some initial reviews I saw were enthusiastic. But ultimately, while the emotional issues it tackled were meaningful, the writing and world-building were a bit too “clever” for my tastes, without ever really pulling me in. The one thing I really did love was the idea of a house being the adversary – often a GU story takes place entirely within a house, but I can’t recall one ever being such a prominent character before.

Cecelia, 11, made a tragic mistake that resulted in her little brother’s death. Since then, the magical, animate house she inhabits has turned against her. Her mother disappears one day in search of her brother’s spirit in the far off Land of Yesterday (actually another planet), and the house pushes Cecelia to follow her, threatening to destroy her father if her mother is not returned to it. She uses a magical pen filled with her own tears to open a literal door within herself. Despite her brother’s spirit’s warnings, she takes off on a perilous quest. She soon meets two gnomes who run a shuttle service between the worlds, who become her companions. Once she reaches Yesterday, she finds her mother but due to the powers of that world of the dead, begins to forget why she’s there. She must see through illusions and fight to rescue those she holds dear. Eventually she leaves her companions behind, and must face off against her angry house alone (uncovering an old secret in the process) in order to win back both her parents and get back home.

“Sometimes all you can do is trust you’ll find your way home.”

37688226The Thorn Queen by Elise Holland was a fairly standard middle-grade GU adventure fantasy story. I have to say I almost gave up on it at first because it just felt like it was throwing a lot of “clever” world building at us all at once (so many new words for seemingly random invented creatures!) but I stuck with it due to the GU angle and it ended up being relatively enjoyable from that perspective, especially with a nice twist as to the identity of the Adversary (although for once, I did see it coming).

Meylyne, 12, a resident of the Between-World, foolishly trespasses into the forbidden Above-World, ignores a warning, and gets herself and her family into some serious trouble. The only solution, upon the advice of a wise well, is to embark on a quest ostensibly to heal a sick prince, but ultimately to save her entire world. She acquires an animal companion, and then a human boy after she rescues him. They discover that a figure known only as the Thorn Queen has been causing mayhem and weakening the entire land. When she finally uncovers the Adversary, it comes with a revelation about her own true nature – as well as the customary attempt at temptation. She then journeys underground to the Beneath-World where more is revealed about her history and powers. With time running out, she must heal a friend and save the world, after a final confrontation with the Thorn Queen.

“Well, if we have disappeared, can we assume that this place is – somewhere else? Like a horrible sort of Narnia? Not our world at all?”

I devoured Small Spaces by Katherine Arden in a single day, and I think some of the eerie scarecrow imagery seeped into my dreams that night. Weirdly, this just happened to be another book-within-a-book example like the last post.

Ollie (short for Olivia), 11, is set apart by the recent tragic loss of her mother, and her behavior since has only further alienated her from her classmates. One day she comes across a lady about to throw an old book (called, of course, Small Spaces) into a creek and impulsively steals it before it can be destroyed – a decision that seems to doom her but actually is the key to her survival. In this book she reads the apparently true story of a family that was granted a miracle – with a terrible price – by an entity only referred to as the Smiling Man.

The next day she discovers that the school field trip to a local farm intersects with this strange and sinister history lesson. When their bus breaks down and Ollie receives disturbing warnings from both the freakish bus driver and her broken digital watch, she decides to take matters into her own hands and escapes to the forest, with two classmates in tow as unlikely companions. They are quickly surrounded and pursued by animate but voiceless scarecrows all seemingly in thrall to the same Smiling Man, and it appears that they have stumbled into some kind of parallel otherworld (which they amusingly keep calling “Bad Narnia”).

The other students on the bus have been captured by the Adversary, and Ollie must use all her cleverness and bravery (and information from her useful book) to rescue them and make it back home to her own world with her companions. This journey culminates in a dangerous corn maze where she loses her friends, makes a bargain with one of the Adversary’s minions, and eventually uncovers the true identity of the Smiling Man. In the final confrontation, he preys on her deepest desires to tempt her to his side but she stays strong. She exposes a fraud, tricks her Adversary, and uncovers the key to breaking the spell.

In the Night Wood by Dale Bailey is not a Girls Underground book. It is a story about a man who, having lost much, becomes obsessed with uncovering a mystery behind the author of a strange Victorian fantasy tale called, of course, In the Night Wood. And that story, the book-within-a-book, appears to be a Girls Underground story.

“What would she do now? she asked herself as the fell King spurred his horse into a gallop and hurtled down the corridor of trees. She recalled too late the words the Knight of Ice had imparted to her at the end of his Tale: When you come to the end of your own Story, he had said, you must remember the thing that you have forgotten. But how could you remember the thing you had forgotten when you had forgotten to remember it? she wondered.

And then the Horned King was upon her.”

As you can see from this excerpt from the book-within-a-book, there is also a deep awareness of The Power of Story running through these recursive tales, which also grabbed my interest. And then, of course, there’s the gorgeous, very GU cover:

nightwood

We don’t really get enough of the Victorian story to be 100% sure of its details, but there is a girl, and a journey into an otherworldly forest, and an Adversary. We get just enough tantalizing morsels to make me hope that Bailey will some day reveal the whole thing, much like Catherynne Valente spun out The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making after fans begged her to expand on its mention in another of her books.

Bailey’s book is well worth reading beyond any GU connection. It handles the intermingling of folklore and the everyday very deftly, with an understanding of how mythic reality can manifest subtly at first, starting in the caverns of the mind and slowly bleeding out to take physical form. And how terrible and bloody it can be.

61Mr62JjbZL._SL160_“She was afraid, and she was brave, and she would not let her father be harmed.”

Because I loved her first book, Summer and Bird, so fiercely and deeply, I read Katherine Catmull’s next book The Radiant Road the minute it came out. But for some reason, I didn’t profile it here at that time, despite it also being a Girls Underground story (and yet, completely different than her first book). I can only chalk that up to my being totally absorbed in the magic of this story, so much that I didn’t set aside a part of my mind to analyze it in the context of the archetype. Which says a lot about the power of this book!

Clare, almost-fifteen, has returned to Ireland, the land of her birth and of her mother’s early death, with her father. They move back into her ancestral home, an ancient stone structure built around a living yew tree (and oh, how I will ever after dream of living in such a place!). And very quickly, Clare begins to learn, and to remember: about the fairy road that passes through her home, about the fairy “makings” – the art they create in our world, echoing her own hidden art – about her childhood friend Finn who is not wholly human or fairy, about her sacred heritage and duty as guardian of the tree. And of course, there is a looming threat – an Adversary who is out to destroy the fairy gates so that he can avert his prophesied doom.

Clare must learn to accept fairy (or, as she prefers to call it, the Strange), and move within it with volition, in order to save her father, and to preserve the connection between fairy and our world. She is helped by Finn, and by an intimidating fairy Hunter who gives her instructions and a boon, but is harsh when Clare appears to fail.

After making a terrible mistake, Clare journeys below to the center of the labyrinth to confront her own beast. As time is running out, she discovers her own inner fortitude. When the Adversary attacks, she stands against him.

Like her first book, what makes this one stand out from all the other GU books I’ve read is the arresting beauty of the language, the way the author can convey a very particular feeling so precisely through unique and often haunting metaphors and descriptions. In addition, this one is close to my heart because of the way it speaks about art, and the collaboration (though often long-distance) between human and fairy, with us making in our dreams and sometimes with our words and hands, whereas they bring their magic into our world due to the poignancy of its ephemeral nature, creating art out of the very stuff of our reality. That each sacred gate to the otherworld must be unlocked through a specific act (playing, singing, dancing) also rings very true to me, echoing my own experiences at such sites, which often speak very clearly what they want from you, if you are silent and still enough to listen.

“And back then, in waking life, fairy-makings abounded. Her world was the broad refrigerator door where the Strange posted their art, just like she posted hers at home.”

“Suddenly the world she thought she knew had opened up as if stage curtains had been yanked back to show her that there was so much more than what she’d imagined. There was magic. Secrets crouched in the dark. Characters from stories, like the ones she’d been told all her life, were taking off their masks and saying, I was never a tale, but a truth.”

I plucked Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi off the shelf in the library because it featured a titular girl – always a good sign that it might be a Girls Underground book. And it was! And, refreshingly it draws on Hindu mythology rather than the more common European myth and folklore one usually finds in these books.

Aru, 12, lives in a museum with her very distracted and often travelling mother. One day she makes a tragic mistake while showing off for some friends, and awakens a destructive being called the Sleeper – simultaneously freezing her mother in time, so that her quest becomes both common GU tropes: to save the world, and to rescue a family member. And time is running out, as she has to accomplish this before the new moon. She is guided from the outset by a talking pigeon who is much more than he seems. She also acquires a companion named Mini who is almost more like a co-heroine; together they complete many tasks and trials in their journey to the Kingdom of Death (not technically underground, but close enough in spirit). They are pursued by the Sleeper along the way. They must cross a Bridge of Forgetting at one point, where they start losing parts of themselves. There is a revelation about Aru’s identity. And in the end, she confronts the Sleeper alone, who tries to tempt her to his side. It is not really a spoiler to say she defeats him only provisionally, as there is already a sequel slated for publication next year.

“Heroines usually are the Kingdom of Death’s worst nightmares. They’re always barging in, waving scraps of metal around, and demanding things. No manners whatsoever.”

“Ordinary life had been infected by an otherworldly menace that had struck down Finn’s friends with terrifying ruthlessness and left Finn alone. Alone, she planned a rescue.”

Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour is a pretty standard “dark faerie” take on the Girls Underground trope, which I felt was rather uneven. There was definitely some magic in this, and a good dose of folklore, but it got bogged down at times by endless descriptions of the characters’ outfits and repetitive imagery – it would have benefited from a better editor (and proofreader, since a publisher’s mistake replaced every instance of the word “ivy” with the name “Emory”… and there were a lot of mentions of ivy, including on the very first page! Hard to understand how they all missed that).

Finn, who lost her mother and more recently her sister, moves with her father to a new town to attend college there – a town which turns out to be half populated by relatively malevolent fairy folk. She immediately falls for Jack before she knows what he is, and spends most of the novel trying to rescue him from the clutches of their dark queen Reiko (the Adversary). Finn’s friends are eventually collateral damage in this struggle, and then she must save them too. She discovers along the way that she has an ancestral connection to all of this. At one point, she forgets everything that has happened, and must remember in order to move forward. In the end, she is the one who may be sacrificed, and Reiko attempts to seduce her to their side, but she prevails – unfortunately not entirely on her own, which I always feel detracts from the climax of a GU story.

I see that the third book in this series (of which this is the first) has Finn journeying to the land of the dead, in keeping with the katabasis theme of the archetype, but not sure I’m invested enough in the books to get there.

“I did it because a girl doing nothing in a fairy tale ends up dead or worse, but a girl who makes a decision usually gets rewarded.”

I had a bit of a meaningful synchronicity happen around reading The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert. I had found it during one of my regular searches for GU books online, and reserved a copy at the library. The very day my hold came in, a close friend told me about a book she had found quite randomly which she thought I’d really resonate with – The Hazel Wood! I knew right then this was likely to be something special, and it was. I read a lot of GU books of course, and most of them are enjoyable enough, but only a few stand out enough to earn a permanent place on my bookshelf, and this is one of them. Not only does it follow the archetype beautifully, it delves into the Power of Story in a world where the stories are mostly dark and cruel and perilous – something I noticed a few other reviewers balking at, but which suits me very well.

Alice Proserpine, 16 (and what a nod to the GU archetype right there in her name, with references to both Alice in Wonderland and the myth of Persephone – called Proserpine by the Romans) has lived an unstable life, being dragged from one town to another by her mother, constantly seeming to be on the run from who-knows-what. Her grandmother Althea was the infamous author of a rare book of fairy tales, but Alice has never met her, although she has tried to connect with her by reading every fairy tale she could find. Shortly after Althea dies, their normally unlucky, difficult life gets even stranger, and Alice’s mother is stolen. Alice must team up with a boy from school who’s obsessed with Althea’s book, to uncover the secrets her mother had hidden – secrets about the fairy tale world called Hinterland which is more real than she could have imagined.

They receive cryptic warnings and directions along the way, there is strange magic afoot, and Alice suffers a devastating betrayal. She discovers that she is deeply connected to the Hinterland, and is able to find it where others failed. She meets the Adversary, who causes her to forget herself for so long it seems there is no hope. But with some help from her companions, she wakes up and manages to tell a new story that not only liberates her, but everyone else in that world. Because ultimately, it’s a world built on Story, and once she understands that, she truly knows herself and gains volition. These are some of the most important themes of the Girls Underground trope, which is part of what makes this book so special to me.

I’ve tried to keep this vague because I don’t want to spoil anything, and this book is really worth discovering for yourself, so I highly suggest you do that!

“A hundred times she had learned the ways and turnings of the Labyrinth and had come to the hidden room at last.”

I read The Tombs of Atuan  – the second book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s original Earthsea trilogy – many years ago, but for some reason neglected to add it here. Re-reading it, I find that it is missing some of the common GU elements, but matches more closely the mythological versions of the story, which hadn’t yet developed some of the details we find in modern examples.

Tenar is taken at the age of five years old to be a priestess of the nameless gods who inhabit an underground labyrinth beneath a complex of temples. Her name is taken from her, her identity “eaten.” She spends most of her time alone. When the wizard Ged comes to steal a treasure from the gods, Tenar ends up helping him escape in defiance of both the temple priestess Kossil (a sort of intermediary adversary) and the Nameless Ones themselves (the real terror). She fights against becoming lost in the labyrinth, and the onset of despair. She also helps Ged restore a sacred artifact that might benefit the whole world. When she finally emerges from the underground tombs, with Ged’s help, the entire system crumbles into dust as the Nameless Ones are defeated.

I picked up Daughter of the Burning City by Amanda Foody with some skepticism, fearing from the description that it would be trying too hard to be edgy, but it completely won me over and I stayed up late last night just to finish it because I couldn’t wait another day!

Sorina, 16, is the sole illusionist for a travelling city-sized carnival famous for its debauchery and magic. Her “family” consists of people she created as permanent illusions, who all perform together in a freak show, each one having some kind of special ability. She doesn’t remember her birth family, and was adopted at 3 years old by the manager of the carnival, who is often distracted by his duties. After one of her illusions is murdered (impossibly, since they shouldn’t be real enough to die), Sorina embarks on an investigation to find the killer, while also working to save her foster mother from a progressive illness, and navigating a budding relationship with a fellow magic-worker named Luca who becomes her companion.

The carnival is a fascinating world full of strange characters and excitement and intrigue, but the real threat may be coming from beyond its boundaries, in the lands of kings and princes and politics. She is guided along the way by fortune-tellers and charm-workers. There is a devastating betrayal. The stakes are raised as more people die. When the adversary is revealed, Sorina must defeat them – but she is never truly alone, for her illusions are not just friends or family, they are a part of her.

Aside from being a pretty classic Girls Underground story, this one stood out a little – not just for the exotic setting, but for the protagonist’s inner struggles (she is not only an orphan but a genuine freak) and the unusual relationship she develops with Luca, who is somewhere on the asexual end of the spectrum – not something you see very often in the YA fantasy genre which is usually oversaturated with relatively commonplace sex and romance subplots.

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.

The Oracle


THE GIRLS UNDERGROUND STORY ORACLE - tapping into the Power of Story for guidance and insight. Learn more here.

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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