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“What she didn’t know was that adventures are never neat little affairs like a trip to the amusement park, from which you emerge tired but unaltered. They are messy. They are dangerous. They are hungry, and what they take from you can never be recovered.”
The Key & the Flame by Claire M. Caterer unfortunately just didn’t ever really engage me in all of its 470 pages. It was a relatively by-the-book Girls Underground story, though. Holly, 11, has a boring life and yearns for adventure. Her family moves to England for a few months in the summer, and their house’s caretaker gives Holly a mysterious key which opens a door in a tree into another world. Holly is accompanied by her little brother Ben and their neighbor Everett, both of whom get captured immediately, and Holly must find a way to rescue them and return them all home.
She is helped along the way by several magical creatures from that realm, who are hoping she can help them in return, to fight against the anti-magic royalty. Theoretically the prince is the adversary, although a greater, evil adversary is hinted at – but Holly only interacts with him at the very end, and even then it’s more of an escape than a true confrontation or defeat. She does have a partial betrayal by a companion, and distracted parents, and the risk of losing herself, and guidance from an old wise woman. But even Holly seems to know at the end that, even with all her adventures, she didn’t really accomplish anything in that otherworld – she may have even caused more harm than good to the magical creatures there. So it wasn’t a particularly satisfying end for a Girl Underground.
I was excited for The Door by Andy Marino because the title so nicely alludes to “portal” part of Portal-Quest Fantasy (of which Girls Underground is an example), however it turned out to only be an Honorable Mention and – while interesting and ambitious – was ultimately disappointing.
Hannah, 12, lives with her widowed mother next to a remote lighthouse. Her inner world is complex and somewhat dysfunctional, in that she talks to people in her head and is crippled by certain OCD tendencies (which was an interesting and unique aspect for a protagonist, though it’s not fully explored). One day strangers visit, and events compel her mother to reveal that their family has a sacred duty – they guard the door to the city of the dead, a vast otherworld where all souls go after death. When her mother is murdered, Hannah goes through the forbidden door to rescue her.
In the city of the dead, Hannah’s “imaginary” inner people materialize before her, and become her companions, along with a couple dead souls who help her. She must avoid the ominous Watchers who patrol the city, and she has conflict with those who have betrayed her – but there is never really a firm Adversary working against her. She does start to forget herself, and the details of her life (a consequence of being in the land of the dead) but that is remedied. The city and its inhabitants are creatively imagined and described, but that’s not quite enough to sustain the book.
While Hannah manages to find her mother, and even her long lost father, and there are some tantalizing hints that she’s been to this otherworld before somehow, nothing is explained in the end, her final test is rather anticlimactic, and the resolution is vague and unsatisfying.
“You could save more than your family. You could save the whole world! Or rather, this world.”
Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova marks at least the seventh example I’ve profiled here that has “labyrinth” in the title and/or in which labyrinths or mazes play a prominent role. (The first of course being the movie that started it all, Labyrinth, and then there was Pan’s Labyrinth, and Libyrinth – a library labyrinth – and The Path of Names, the path being one that leads through a special hedge maze, and the mystical maze in The China Garden, and finally the labyrinth underground with a beast at its center in Neverwhere, referencing the mythical labyrinth in the story of Ariadne.) This one is extremely true to the GU archetype, and reminiscent of several other examples, but also stands out for its use of concepts and mythology inspired by Latin America.
Alejandra – or Alex – comes from a family of brujas (witches), but has been hiding from her own power her whole life, just wanting to be a normal girl. As she turns 16, her family prepares her “Deathday” celebration in which her ancestors will bless her magic, but at the same time, a malevolent creature comes looking for her. Instead of embracing her legacy, Alex decides (with the help of a mysterious and attractive brujo named Nova) to attempt to banish her abilities, and it goes horribly wrong. Her family is taken away to a strange otherworld, and Alex enlists Nova to help her rescue them. (They enter through a portal in a tree, and then fall and fall… two nods to Alice I think.)
In the otherworld, Alex learns more about her adversary – a bruja-turned-monster called The Devourer – as she navigates a terrifying landscape and battles the adversary’s minions to reach the labyrinth where her family is being held. She also acquires a second companion, a friend from home who followed her into the otherworld. She forgets herself at a fairy banquet. And she discovers that, like many GU, she has been chosen not just to rescue her loved ones, but to save the world.
There is a betrayal – common in these stories but still often excruciating to experience – and it seems for awhile like all is lost, when Alex surrenders her magic to the Devourer. But in the end, she discovers the real meaning of her power. She doesn’t quite defeat the adversary alone in this one, but she does reach her goal and become greater than she was.
Lilliput by Sam Gayton utilizes the foundation of Gulliver’s Travels to tell a Girls Underground story (or perhaps, a reverse GU story, in that the protagonist is taken from her magical world into our more mundane world).
Lily is a tiny Lilliputian, kidnapped by Gulliver and brought back to London to use as proof that his wild tales really happened. She is the equivalent of about 12 years old when she tries to escape. There is sort of a double-adversary situation here – Gulliver is unmoved by Lily’s plight, thinking only of his own, but he rents the attic where he lives from a much worse man, an evil clockmaker who has enslaved his own apprentice, Finn. It is Finn who finds Lily and becomes her companion, each rescuing the other multiple times. Finn and Lily enlist the help of a friendly chocolatier and make a plan to steal Gulliver’s map, free a bird from the clockmaker’s grasp, and fly her home. But a seeming betrayal by one of her companions might ruin everything. Eventually, one of the adversaries becomes an ally. Lily escapes, but she never really definitively defeats the remaining adversary, and she doesn’t do it on her own either, so it lacks that typical satisfying GU finale.
“It’s not always what happens that is the most important thing. Sometimes it’s how you tell the story.”
Partway through The Wrinkled Crown I realized I had actually read another book by Anne Nesbet awhile back, and profiled it here (The Cabinet of Earths). I was delighted to discover that this one was just as engaging and original, as well as being another Girls Underground book (in fact, it even has a chapter named “The Girl From Underground”!).
Linny, almost 12, lives in the magical “wrinkled” hills in a village called Lourka, named after a special stringed instrument – an instrument that all girls under the age of 12 are forbidden to touch. Linny, however, not only touches one, she builds her own and plays it. But when the dreaded Voices (terrifying invisible entities that are never explained, making them more disturbing) come to exact their punishment, they take Linny’s friend Sayra instead, off to an unknown land called Away. Linny decides to embark on a dangerous journey to the Plain below the wrinkled hills, where magic is regarded with suspicion and anxiety, in hopes of finding a cure to retrieve Sayra’s spirit.
She is accompanied off and on by a village boy named Elias, and the strange Half-Cat she meets in the Plain. Together they keep getting captured, “rescued” and pursued by a variety of opposing forces in a complicated political landscape that pits the logical, technology-based Plain folks of a divided city against the more natural, magical wrinkled folks. Linny alone seems to be comfortable with both ways of being – and thus, contrary to my expectations from more typical stories like this, she does not seek to have magic and nature prevail, but rather to balance both sides (a nice change of pace!).
There is no singular adversary, but rather several, some of which seem helpful at first, but all of which have their own agendas (and she does defeat them, in various ways, though not in any really satisfying final confrontation). Linny does go literally underground at one point, in a harrowing trial through labyrinthine passages, some of which almost trap her beneath the earth. She also spends some time forgetting herself and her quest when she reaches the Sea which seems to take all thought and memory away.
Along the way, Linny discovers that she resembles a legendary figure that is supposed to save their divided world. In fact, it seems she is this person precisely because her mother journeyed to the wrinkled hills in search of that girl, and in the hills, Story makes reality. When Linny finally reaches her friend Sayra, they manage to return from the distant Away by telling the story of their adventures, over and over again, including an ending that brings them home again, until it comes true. An excellent example of the Power of Story!
One thing that is mentioned several times in this book that holds true for many Girls Underground – their companions often end up suffering quite a bit due to being in their sphere of influence, even though the Girl herself does not directly harm them. It is the consequence of being caught up in an important Story, I suppose, but significant to note that it’s not all fun and adventure. Linny spends a lot of time feeling guilty that every move she makes seems to endanger a friend.
“And then there was the great bang of the front door slamming shut – and Linny, whose friends kept being swallowed by dooms of her own making, found herself horribly, awfully alone.”
“You’re off! You’re off! A story has got hold of you. There’s no denying the undeniable, no dillydallying with the undelayable. Off you go, then! Follow the words, my love. That’s what a writer does. Just follow the words.”
While the writing in Finding Serendipity by Angelica Banks was a bit too juvenile even for a middle-grade book, in my opinion, I soldiered on because it was not only a GU plot but a classic (if simplistic) example of The Power of Story.
Tuesday’s mother is a famous writer, who disappears out an open window one day. Tuesday discovers a magical system of transportation via writing a story on her mother’s typewriter, and rushes off to find her (with her loyal dog in tow). She is led to a world where stories happen, to a place called The Beginning, where she meets a sometimes-companion boy named Blake and a sometimes-helpful Librarian. The twist is, while Tuesday is out adventuring, her mother has quickly returned home and is now frantic about her missing daughter!
Tuesday manages to conjure up her own mother’s story-world and ends up embroiled in her own tale with the protagonist, and the evil pirate adversary. She ends up having to rescue her new friend and her newly-magical dog. While she does not return home in the middle, she does briefly return to the Beginning before deciding to re-enter the story-world. She also faces an oubliette-like time where she loses the thread of her Story. (Says her companion: “Got all the way into your story before you had your own version of what I like to call the Swamp of Doubt – when you don’t know where you’re going or what will happen next, so you stumble about in a fog.”)
Tuesday eventually faces off with the Adversary in a rhyming contest, which she essentially wins by telling a powerful Story. Then she goes home and learns that she too was special, to be able to follow her mother, and is a writer herself (though at the very end, the reality of what she just experienced is casually weakened in a way that seems to undermine the magical aspect of the story, which was disappointing).
“It was cruel and cold and brutal and beautiful, and I would give anything to go back there. Maybe it broke me in some deep, intrinsic way that I am incapable of seeing….I don’t care. It was my home, and it finally let me be myself, and I hate it here.”
What happens to the Girl Underground after her adventure is over? Well, in a few glorious examples, she stays underground, but most of the time she ends up back in the “real world” either voluntarily (so many of them want so desperately to get home to their dull Kansas-like lands!) or as the natural conclusion to her journey. But what about those girls who never wanted to leave, and pine away for the magical world they left behind?
In Every Heart a Doorway, author Seanan McGuire introduces us to a boarding school made just for those girls (and a few boys) who stepped through a looking glass or went down an impossibly stairway inside a trunk, and ended up in a world they felt was truly “home” – only to get cast out again and be labeled “troubled” or even “insane” by confused parents.
Why mostly girls?
“Because ‘boys will be boys’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy…They’re too loud, on the whole, to be easily misplaced or overlooked; when they disappear from the home, parents send search parties to dredge them out of swamps and drag them away from frog ponds. It’s not innate. It’s learned. But it protects them from the doors, keeps them safe at home. Call it irony, if you like, but we spend so much time waiting for our boys to stray that they never have the opportunity. We notice the silence of men. We depend upon the silence of women.”
I don’t know that this is the full, true answer, but it may at least be part of it. Even more accurate, though, in my opinion, is her description of why the doors opened for these girls in the first place – and always into worlds that spoke to some deep, hidden part of themselves.
“Some doors really do appear only once, the consequence of some strange convergence that we can’t predict or re-create. They’re drawn by need and by sympathy. Not the emotion – the resonance of one thing to another. There’s a reason you were all pulled into worlds that suited you so well.”
She also speaks to how the journey changes a person. Those of us who understand the Power of Story and implement it in our lives will find this very familiar:
“The habit of narration, of crafting something miraculous out of the commonplace, was hard to break. Narration came naturally after a time spent in the company of talking scarecrows or disappearing cats; it was, in its own way, a method of keeping oneself grounded, connected to the thin thread of continuity that ran through all lives, no matter how strange they might become. Narrate the impossible things, turn them into a story, and they could be controlled.”
But no matter what they do, most of these girls won’t find their way back through their doors. Most Girls Underground return home and stay home, in the end. And for those who don’t want to, it must be excruciating. Especially as their memories and surety fade over time.
“My window is closing….Every day I wake up a little more linear, a little less lost, and one day I’ll be one of the women who says ‘I had the most charming dream,’ and I’ll mean it. [I’m] old enough to know what I’m losing in the process of being found.”
Every Heart a Doorway is a short and imperfect book (I always wince a little at authors who clearly think they’re very clever, even if they are), but it also cuts to the heart of this archetype in certain ways I’ve never seen before, and holds a lot of truth.
The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab is really only an Honorable Mention as far as the GU archetype goes, but well worth reading.
Teenager Lexi lives in a small village named Near (in some undefined time that includes rifles but not cars or modern technology) that appears to be very closed off to outside influences. There’s a story in Near of a witch who lived long ago, who was accused of killing a child and murdered in retaliation. History has become indistinguishable from legend at this point, but Lexi begins to suspect the Near witch is real, and not gone after all, when children begin disappearing from the village.
Unfortunately, the locals fixate on the stranger who has recently showed up, an enigmatic boy that Lexi names Cole (because he won’t divulge his real name), and who becomes her companion as she tries to discover the truth behind the missing children, while protecting her own little sister Wren from joining them (and, eventually, protecting Cole from the villagers). She is helped (and sometimes hindered) along the way by two elderly sisters that were once powerful witches, and may still have some magic left in them. As time runs out she must find the old witch’s bones to put her to rest, which involves entering a haunted wood and battling the witch’s spirit and her crows. (A sort of secondary adversary is Lexi’s uncle, who is one of the village elders and leads the hunt for Cole, refusing to listen to Lexi’s protestations.)
Lexi does defeat the Near witch, and saves her sister, but only with Cole’s help. There is not much interaction with the adversary until the very end, and there’s no big journey or otherworldly exploration. She does have absent parents, though, in that her father is dead and her mother has sort of faded due to grief. And the adversary does try to trick her at the last moment.
“If you come willingly, you will lose nothing. You will have your own thoughts, your own will. You can do as you wish. And you will be powerful. We will both be powerful together.”
The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste is a solid by-the-book GU example, made a bit more refreshing and unique by the use of Caribbean folklore rather than the more ubiquitous northern European fairy folklore.
Corinne, 11, lives with her father, her mother having died long ago. Villagers on her island have always warned of the jumbies, a wide array of spirits that are said to live in the forest and be dangerous to humans. Corinne nevertheless ventures into the forest one day and is spotted and followed by a jumbie. She turns to her new friends, and a local witch, to help her.
The jumbie has taken on the form of a woman and is trying to seduce and capture her father, so Corinne must rescue him – although her task becomes even greater when she learns it is also planning to destroy all the humans, and turn them into jumbies. The spirit, called Severine, tries to win Corinne to her side (a common adversary ploy) but fails. Time is running out to save her father, and Corinne must separate from her companions to find an object that will help. She then has a final confrontation with the adversary and must use her own newly-discovered magic to defeat her. Corinne discovers she is much more than she ever imagined.
“But whatever you choose will come with a price. You will lose something: your father, your friends, or your freedom.”
“‘Only way to be safe is to let me protect you. You can be part of my family. You can be with your parents again, and we’ll all become rich together. How does that sound?’ Monster sniffed. ‘It sounds like a join-the-Dark-Side speech.’ ‘Think about what I’m offering. A chance to be a part of something great!'”
The Girl Who Could Not Dream by Sarah Beth Durst is not only a great GU example, but worth reading if for nothing else but the infinitely likable Monster character, who seems one part Stitch and one part the wombat from The Boy Who Lost Fairyland (that’s him on the cover, the cat-like thing with tentacles and saucer eyes – and don’t let anyone tell you he’s nice!).
Sophie, 12, has a secret – her parents buy and sell dreams (and nightmares) in the basement of their bookshop. Sophie herself has never dreamed…except once as a child when she stole a bottle from her parents’ shelf and dreamed of a monster in a closet, who then followed her into the real world and became her pet/friend Monster. If anyone found out that Sophie could bring things from the dream world into reality, it would bring a world of trouble down on her whole family.
One day Sophie acts carelessly and lets a dream-customer see her and Monster. This man – the adversary – likes to go by the moniker Mr. Nightmare, which should have been their first warning. Later that day, Sophie’s parents disappear, and then so do two girls at school who were troubled by frequent nightmares. Sophie, Monster and her new friend Ethan band together to investigate Mr. Nightmare and rescue those he has kidnapped, with help from a variety of fantastical dreamworld creatures. She does return home briefly in the middle of this quest, as per usual. There is also a betrayal by a companion. Her final showdown with the adversary isn’t quite alone, but otherwise the story fits (he even attempts to seduce her to his side, as shown in the quote above), and she does end up saving everyone in the end.