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“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.

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.

“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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