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I picked up Where the Woods End by Charlotte Salter because, of course, it looked like a GU story, and because I liked the cover, and because it had a bloodthirsty weasel character and I’m partial to those. While many young reader fantasy tales are advertised as “dark” or “grim” this one truly pushed the limits especially during the first half, humorous weasel companion notwithstanding.

Kestrel is a girl living in a nearly hopeless world – a vast forest she can’t escape, filled with vicious animals and terrifying monsters, the worst of which are called Grabbers and build their bodies out of your own possessions while they stalk you and eventually kill you. Her village – the only village – is entirely populated with people who hate her, despite the fact that she spends her life hunting the Grabbers. Her father (a wolf hunter) is mostly absent, and her mother has become a frightening presence, sitting inside a web of magic and manipulating the villagers, including Kestrel, and threatening even worse. And the dead grandmother who trained her was unrelentingly cruel and punishing. Kestrel only has one friend (not counting the weasel), a boy who ends up betraying her with fairly little provocation. Truly, her existence is bleak, and not surprisingly her only goal is to get out of the forest, to a land beyond which she believes must exist, although she’s never seen it.

Things start changing (much to my relief, as the gloom was almost too much) when Kestrel encounters a monster in the forest who unlocks some memories she had repressed, and she begins to understand the true nature of her situation and the people around her. The more Kestrel learns about who she is, the closer she comes to defeating her Adversaries (primarily her mother and her own Grabber) and getting a chance for escape. Though in the end, like many Girls Underground, she must go alone.

“There was no returning to the way things had been before. Home was no longer the haven she’d thought it was; safety was an illusion.”

I picked up Unwritten by Tara Gilboy because it deals with one of my favorite themes, the Power of Story. It turned out to have an interesting twist on the GU archetype.

12-year-old Gracie has known the big secret of her life since she was little – her mother, herself, and her friend Walter were all once characters in a story, who escaped into the real world to avoid their terrible fates in the story, at the hands of the evil queen Cassandra. When Gracie sneaks off against her mother’s wishes to meet the writer of her story and find some answers, she inadvertently sets off a chain of events that results in her and Walter having to willingly return to the story world to rescue their parents.

Once there, it seems everyone is forgetting about the real world except for Gracie, and even she is slipping into the familiar ways of her character. While there is an evil stepmother-queen at work here, in many ways the true Adversary that Gracie must fight is herself, her story nature. In the end, that is the final showdown, and Gracie triumphs by – of all things – saving her captor’s life. She rescues her friends and family and returns home, but with the threat not entirely gone, due to her act of kindness – the very thing she needed to win at all. A nicely complicated lesson (things aren’t always black and white, good and evil), that also clearly sets up the possibility of a sequel.

“Now there’s nobody to judge me, to tell me about myself. Nobody to impress, nobody to disappoint. Now is the time I find out who I am.”

Cuckoo Song is the fifth Frances Hardinge book I’ve read, the third profiled here, and hands-down my favorite so far. However, it’s hard to discuss here without spoiling the main premise of the plot, which isn’t fully revealed until about a quarter of the way through, and I love this one too much to do that. But I can say that it has all the important elements of a GU story – an Adversary and his minions, several companions, distant parents, time running out, rescue of a family member, return home in the middle, solitary defeat of the Adversary, as well as a labyrinthine area and a journey, if not underground, upside-down.

Triss (whose name actually changes a couple of times, in one of the most striking evolutions I’ve seen as a Girl comes to understand who she really is), 13, emerges from nearly drowning in a pond with hazy memories not only of that event, but of her entire life before. As she pieces together what happened and why she feels so strange, she uncovers a whole other world beside her own, and a host of dangerous enemies.

This is a weird one even for Hardinge (I noted some Goodreads reviewers had trouble connecting with the character, and her strange proclivities) which is probably why it resonated so strongly with me. You’ll just have to trust me that it’s worthwhile. Especially for those who love fairy folklore (although I don’t think “fairy” is once mentioned, nor is it nearly that simple).

Watch Hollow by Gregory Funaro is only an Honorable Mention as a GU story, and doesn’t really stand out among them, but was a fun read nonetheless.

Lucy, 11, lives with her brother Oliver and her father, both of whom spend most of their time and attention on their failing business as watchmakers (her mother is dead). One day they get a generous offer from a stranger to come fix the clock in a strange old mansion and live there for the summer. Soon magical creatures are awakening and insisting to Lucy that she is the new caretaker, and that there is a dangerous evil lurking in the woods surrounding the house, called the Garr, who wants to destroy everything. She must rescue an animal companion, and then her brother, and discover the true nature of the Adversary. She never really ends up confronting him alone, though, and overall just doesn’t play enough of a critical role to make it entirely her story.

A Skinful of Shadows is the fourth Frances Hardinge novel I have read (one of the others, A Face Like Glass, was also a Girls Underground book), and they have all been fantastically written and noticeably unique one from the other (unlike many prolific authors who seem to just repeat the same scenarios and environments over and over).

Makepeace is a young woman living during the English Civil War, who is embroiled in a much stranger war of her own, for control of her very body and soul. She comes from a long line of people with a special gift (or curse) – a hollow space inside that can be occupied by spirits. As a child, her mother taught her to ward off the ghosts who tried to get inside her. But an impetuous decision leads accidentally to her mother’s death, and Makepeace is sent to live with the aristocratic family of her dead father, where she discovers terrible secrets behind their wealth and power. As she works to unravel the mysteries and protect herself, she begins to acquire companions – the first is her half-brother James, but the rest are all spirits who come to live inside her, including the ghost of an angry, abused bear who becomes her closest ally once she learns how to coexist with him. (The relationship she has with this animal spirit is profound and complicated and one of the best things about the story, especially as it is communicated entirely without any conversation possible between herself and the bear.)

When James is possessed by ghosts, Makepeace goes on a long and dangerous quest to find a cure, which might also save her someday. There is not one Adversary but a collective of them, manipulative ghosts who have lived forever in borrowed bodies and have set their sights on her next. Despite several painful betrayals, she manages to defeat them all with her cleverness and tenacity – although she never faces them alone per se, since with all the ghosts inside her, she will never be truly alone.

The Bone Garden by Heather Kassner features a protagonist who struggles, like Alice when talking to the Tweedles, with the fear that she may not be real. Except in Irréelle’s case there’s an especially good reason – she was created by a bone witch from nothing more than bone dust, and the witch keeps threatening to imagine her out of existence if she misbehaves.

Irréelle lives with her creator, Miss Vesper, in a crumbling mansion next to a graveyard. Tunnels lead from her basement into an underground realm below the cemetery, where Irréelle gathers bone dust from skeletons to bring back to Miss Vesper for use in her magic. After a big mistake, Irréelle escapes into the tunnels where she meets (and rescues) another of her Adversary’s creations, and together they work to solve a puzzle in hopes of being freed. But is any real life possible for an unreal girl?

In the final confrontation, Irréelle defeats her Adversary not with weapons or cunning, but with empathy, which was an interesting departure from the norm. Though overall the writing style itself was just average, I agree with one reviewer who said this would make a really great stop motion film like Coraline.

“This is your story. Your adventure. You must enter the Manor and find your father. Only then will the mysteries unravel. Only then will your destiny become clear.”

I picked up The Cradle of All Worlds by Jeremy Lachlan at a paperback sale at the library, quickly discerning that it was a GU story from the cover blurb. However later I discovered that it had also been released with the alternate title Jane Doe and the Cradle of All Worlds (because it is the first book of a series), thereby making it a case of Titular Girls. It turned out to fit the archetype down to very small details, and was quite enjoyable and creative throughout, but was ultimately unsatisfying because it ended on a cliffhanger with no resolution or final confrontation with the Adversary. I hope these will come with the next book (Jane Doe and the Key of All Souls, due in February), but I personally prefer stand-alone books where the story is at least completed to a point, even if it then continues on in a different way in sequels.

Jane Doe, 14, has lived her whole life on an isolated island with her father who cannot speak or interact, where both of them are reviled as cursed by the townspeople. She does not know anything about her past, her mother, or even her own name. She only has one friend, a younger girl named Violet. This island has one notable feature – a magical door into a place called the Manor, which is a sort of meeting place between all possible worlds, created by the gods themselves.

One day Jane receives a secret message that leads her into a trap by a bad man who seems initially to be the Adversary but is quickly dealt with – there are much bigger foes ahead. She discovers a piece of her own history from a local wise woman, who tells her she alone can save the island – but it is so much bigger than that, as she will soon find out. When her father suddenly gains volition and disappears into the Manor, Jane begins a quest to find him and save the world – maybe all the worlds.

Within the Manor she acquires another companion, dodges booby traps, navigates an impossibly labyrinthine and tricksy landscape, learns of the true Adversary, finds more pieces of the puzzle that is her life, is betrayed, finds her father and loses him again, and is almost eaten by monsters. By the end of the book, she is faced with life-changing information that will result, I’m sure, in an ultimate confrontation, but as I said, not yet, not until the sequel (if indeed there is only one and it’s not going to be stretched out for multiple future books).

“Thresholds are dangerous places, neither here nor there, and walking across one is like stepping off the edge of a cliff in the naive faith that you’ll sprout wings halfway down. You can’t hesitate, or doubt. You can’t fear the in-between.”

I had very high hopes for The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. I had seen rave reviews of it online from authors I highly respected. It appeared to be a Girls Underground story that not only featured a titular girl, but relied heavily on magical portals (my favorite kind of portals!). I was hoping not to be disappointed, as I have been a few times recently with GU books that had all the right elements in theory, but just didn’t possess that spark of Trueness, nor the facility with language that can stop you flat in your tracks to savor a sentence fully before resuming the journey. Fortunately, this book delivered just what I was looking for (and more, since it turned out to also touch upon my favorite theme, the Power of Story… in this case, the power of words themselves to change reality). I don’t think I’ve felt so connected to a book profiled here since my beloved The Hazel Wood (the upcoming sequel of which is a burning brand on the horizon for me!)

“….all stories, even the meanest folktales, matter. They are artifacts and palimpsests, riddles and histories. They are the red threads that we may follow out of the labyrinth.”

January Scaller was 7 years old (just like Alice) when she first opened a Door to another world – but she closed it without venturing further, and as she grew older, she tried to be a proper young woman with no time for magic. But magic is persistent. Now 17 – her mother dead, her father away most of the year searching for relics in service to the man who cares for her – she discovers not only that the Door was real, but that there are many Doors to many worlds, and that she seems to have a special power to open them (as well as other accomplishing other miraculous feats) by writing it as Story. When her father disappears – feared dead – she embarks on a quest to find him, armed only with a curious book that seems to tell the story not only of the Doors, but of something much closer to home. She acquires companions in human and canine form, and Adversaries seem to abound until the greatest foe is eventually revealed.

Companions. See the curve of that C like a pair of outstretched arms? It implied the sort of friends who might slay dragons or go on hopeless quests or swear blood oaths at midnight.” 

Escaping an asylum and pursued by a dangerous cabal with dark intentions, she finds a town of outcasts where she might just fit in…. if her presence doesn’t destroy them first. With no place safe, she desperately searches for the answers to the mystery of her own beginnings, returning at last to that very first Door. After a devastating betrayal, her true Adversary is revealed, and attempts to seduce her to his cause, but in the end, all she wants is to go home – once she can find out where that is, and how to get there. After completing her quest and defeating her Adversary, she finds she has a new mission that is bigger than any of them – and the power and strength to complete it.

“But perhaps–if I were brave and temerarious and very foolish–if I listened to the flat, fearless voice in my heart, so familiar and strange–I could rescue both of us.”

How could I resist picking up a copy of Time of the Witch by Mary Downing Hahn? I spied it in a library sale (one dollar!) in all its 80s teen supernatural pulp fiction glory, complete with wonderful cover illustration. I wasn’t expecting much, and I was right, but it was a fun diversion for a couple hours.

12 year old Laura has just been dumped at her aunt’s house in the boonies for a whole summer, with her little brother, so that their distracted, soon-to-be-divorced mother can focus on getting back into school and the workforce. The only interesting part of this very small town is Maude, an old woman with a pet crow who may just be a real witch. Despite the misgivings of everyone around, including her new friend Wanda, Laura decides to approach Maude for help – she wants to get her parents back together. But it turns out that Maude has a complicated backstory with Laura’s family, and her motivations are not what they seem. Laura gets what she wishes for in the most horrible way, and then must race against the clock to undo it – and to save her brother, who has been caught in the web. She enlists the help of a former magical student of Maude’s who is now more of a “white light” sort of practitioner. Unfortunately, this means that in the final showdown, Laura herself only plays a supporting role and doesn’t really defeat the Adversary all by herself. She does, however, learn a valuable growing-up sort of lesson about the way of the world, which is typical for these versions of the archetype.

Sometimes I find my way to GU books via a circuitous route. Awhile back I saw a reference to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken and realized it was a classic of children’s literature that I had completely missed, so set out to rectify that. While plucking it off the library shelf, I noticed nearby another book in the series by the same author, called Is Underground. Obviously the “underground” caught my eye, and I was even more excited once I realized that “Is” was the name of the main character, who was therefore a titular girl. So clearly this book had to come home with me too!

I devoured Wolves quickly and enjoyed it a great deal, and it was quite nearly a GU story itself, with a double-protagonist, although ultimately I felt it didn’t quite qualify. Then I moved on to Is Underground. This one is more definitively GU, although sadly it lacks a satisfying final solitary confrontation and defeat of the adversary.

Is, an orphan living with her sister, one day encounters her dying uncle who begs her to search nearby London for his missing son (her cousin). Once there she discovers that many other children are missing, including the king’s own son. After receiving a mysterious invitation to board a train bound for “Playland” and a supposed life of fun in the North, clever Is realizes it must be related and plays along, only to escape before the rest of the children disembark (and are taken directly to a life of slavery working in the mines). She discovers that there is a whole town built underground here, populated by child slaves, evil guards, and somewhat oblivious wealthy adults. She also discovers that she has more distant family members here, who try to help her in her search for her cousin, the king’s son, and some solution to the evil being wrought. Yet another family member, her own uncle, is the Adversary, who has set himself up as a king in this wasteland.

Is eventually ends up voluntarily working with the other children in the mines in order to figure out how to save them. She discovers a hidden talent, as well as a prophecy circulating that seems to indicate she is destined to help. She finds one of the two boys she was looking for, and manages to rescue most of the enslaved kids, with some help. In the end, her Adversary is destroyed, but not directly through her own actions.

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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