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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.

 

“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.

It’s hard to talk about And the Trees Crept In by Dawn Kurtagich, especially in regards to whether or not it’s a Girls Underground story, without entirely spoiling it, which I don’t want to do – this one is worth reading without any preconceptions. It’s a wonderfully gothic, disturbing, claustrophobic tale told in creative ways, that actually creeped me out in places (not easy to do, I’m getting more jaded to horror as I grow older).

Silla, who starts the story at 14, escapes her abusive father with her 4-year old sister in tow, and shows up on the door of her aunt’s crumbling mansion. But what she doesn’t know is that her aunt has a childhood secret that may threaten them all, involving the summoning of a dark spirit they call the Creeper Man. When her aunt goes mad and retreats to the attic, and the forest outside begins to edge ever closer to the house, cutting them off from any outside help (or food), Silla must battle her own inner demons to rescue herself and her sister. Her only companion is a mysterious boy who comes and goes, and may not be what he seems.

This is one of those GU sub-types that entirely takes place in a house (even when that house slowly becomes part of a forest), and uses that very effectively. When the final confrontation with the adversary comes, everything is turned on its head – but even though it takes an unusual approach to the archetype, I think it still fits. Also, this is a nice twist on the general trend for GU books to be YA fantasy and GU movies to be adult horror, since this is a YA horror book.

The Crooked Sixpence by Jennifer Bell is a pretty by-the-book GU story, though I have to say, the much larger text on the cover proclaiming it as part of a (brand new) series, The Uncommoners, made me wince a little, as I’m getting kind of tired of every book for YA/intermediate readers being part of a series. Just seems like publishers only want a new hot property, something familiar and easy to market and with built-in sequels – the next Harry Potter, or (cringe) Twilight – rather than a book that might actually have something unique to say (and something it can say in a single volume).

Ivy, 11, is living a normal life with parents who are fairly preoccupied with their careers, and her older brother Seb, when her grandmother (whose past has always been a mystery, due to amnesia) is injured one day and everything falls apart quickly. Strange people break into her grandmother’s house, lurk at the hospital, and pursue her and Seb, until a boy shoves her into a suitcase that turns out to be a portal to another world – called Lundinor – which is essentially a large, periodic market. But what this market trades in is unusual, or rather Uncommon – everyday items that are possessed by a part of a dead person’s soul, and can do amazing things. Bells give directions, belts make you fly, yo-yos are weapons.

Ivy discovers that this society of Uncommoners is threatened by a dark cabal called the Dirge, which is connected to her family. When her parents are captured by the Dirge, she and Seb (along with a couple Uncommon companions, both object and human) must unravel the mystery of their grandmother’s past to save their family and the whole of Lundinor. In the process, Ivy discovers she is special even by Uncommon standards. With time running out, she finally uncovers the main adversary, and confronts them on her own.

“No matter who I couldn’t save before, no matter if I’m stuck being a random mess of a girl, I’m still going to save something.”

Two great ones in a row! Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter is a creative and powerful reimagining of the Russian fairytale “Vasilissa the Beautiful” (which I am belatedly adding mention of to the Fairytales page). At first I thought the modernization might be overly clever and verging on silly – Baba Yaga running a chicken-footed convenience store in Brooklyn, beheading shoplifters – but that is far surpassed by the genuine understanding of the initiatory themes involved.

Vassa, 16 (the titular girl), essentially an orphan (her father ran out in a rather unique way), lives with her stepsisters and a magical talking doll, in a neighborhood where nighttime has gone strange, each night lasting longer than the last. After a fight with her stepsister, she impulsively risks shopping at the aforementioned store. She manages to avoid the axe, but gets stuck in a perilous arrangement with the old witch shopkeeper, where she must complete a series of impossible tasks over three long nights. Running away will transform her into a swan, but staying might get her killed. In the midst of this, she encounters several entities that need her help, all trapped or hurt in some way by the witch. There is a junk room, and a possible companion betrayal, and a brief interaction with “things from home” in the midst of the adventure. The adversary’s minions are severed, animated hands. There manage to be moments of genuinely disturbing imagery along with rather funny parts – if you like gallows humor – and some truly beautiful and tragic characters.

But what really makes an impact is the slowly unfolding transformation, on an emotional level, that Vassa undergoes throughout her trials. As we see flashbacks to parts of her past (even those parts unknown to her), and gain insights into her various magical companions, we gain a deeper understanding of her journey and the sacrifices she must make. While the Girl Underground does not really defeat her Adversary alone as is usually important, I thought this was effective and special enough to qualify nonetheless.

“I’m not clever like the rest – I’m just a bit mad. But maybe a bit mad will do.”

A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge was one of the more compelling and original GU novels I’ve read lately. She has created a fantastical and complex world that somehow still seems believable – an underground city, appropriately enough, where miracles are crafted by treacherous nobles who survive by subjugating an underclass, and where the cartographers who must comprehend and track the twisting, multi-leveled, half-magical passages below the earth are driven mad with a mystical knowledge that is contagious just by talking with them. Really fascinating stuff!

Neverfell, 12, is an orphan and suspected outsider to this place, called Caverna. While every other inhabitant learns from birth to control their facial expressions into a limited and artificial range, Neverfell’s face shows what she is feeling, and for that she is feared and ogled. After escaping the tunnels where she had been kept safe for years (funnily enough by following a white rabbit), she begins an adventure with many ups and downs as she unravels the mystery of her origins while contending with the confusing and untrustworthy Cavernans she meets. She acquires several companions, but is betrayed more than once. She encounters several potential Adversaries, but the true ones may be hiding in plain sight. She is a pawn in a dangerous game, but manages to take control of her destiny after all, and not only defeats her opponents but rescues hundreds of virtual slaves and changes the future of the world forever.

“As to where we’re going…you might call it going down. Or up, depending on your perspective.”

The Water and the Wild by K. E. Ormsbee is a pretty satisfyingly classic GU story – once again, I find myself wondering how aware these authors are of the archetype (not likely by name, per se, but even subconsciously).

Lottie, 12, is an orphan with an unpleasant guardian and only one friend in the world – Eliot, a sickly boy whose health is taking a severe turn for the worse. For years she has been receiving mysterious letters and gifts in a box hidden under the apple tree in her courtyard, and she sends her latest wish (for Eliot’s health) there as well. Shortly after, she is approached by a fae girl who alludes to a possible cure for all illness, and invites Lottie on a strange journey inside her apple tree (down through the roots and back up again) and into another world.

Lottie finds herself in a parallel fairy (or “sprite”) world, filled with conflict. She discovers she is a child of both worlds, and that there are tales of someone from her family line reclaiming the throne there. Because of this, the Southerly King is after her. She quickly acquires some sprite children as companions, and they all take a perilous journey to the court of the King to plead for the children’s captured father (a great healer, and Lottie’s only hope). They face many dangers, including a swamp of oblivion (forgetting herself). And – always a crushing blow – there is a betrayal, or appears to be.

Lottie finally comes face to face with the King, and his evil minion, and thwarts them both. Then she finds out she has an even greater power than she ever could have believed.

“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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