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“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.

“She felt out of place and out of time, as though a great force had ripped her away from everything she knew and deposited her, dizzy and breathless, on a strange mountaintop. Even her mother was unfamiliar to her. For the first time in her life, she felt completely alone.”

I picked up Lily by Michael Thomas Ford hoping it would be a case of a titular girl GU story, and I was right! On top of that, it was an excellent read, with a truly unique style and protagonist, and the best Baba Yaga character I think I’ve ever read (so many authors try to mitigate her bloodthirstiness and amorality but not this one).

Lily, 13, finds upon puberty that she can tell how someone will die just by touching them – a special power that causes her nothing but grief, especially after she sees, but cannot stop, her father’s impending death. Her mother immediately retreats from her and becomes distant, yet still forces Lily to come with her and abandon their secluded, magical village to enter the mundane world. They soon come upon a religious tent revival show (run more like a carnival, and written with no love for a certain type of crass Christianity, which I appreciated), and Lily soon finds herself bound to use her power as a sideshow act for the Adversary, a preacher who has also set his sights on her mother. She initially falls for his lies that doing this will help rid herself of her curse. In the meantime, she befriends a changeling, and falls in love with a girl who is held captive by the Adversary, thus adding a quest of rescue to her tasks. All throughout these ordeals, she is shadowed by Baba Yaga, who she has met once in the dream world, and who takes a special interest in her – though one never knows if that will be to her benefit or detriment.

Lily doesn’t quite defeat the Adversary on her own, but she does return home with her true love, and has one final confrontation with Baba Yaga in the form of a riddle game which she wins (sort of by accident). Still, there are enough elements here to qualify this as a solid Girls Underground story. And it stands out among the rest in many ways, including the amazing illustrations by Staven Andersen.

There have sure been a lot of Baba Yaga books coming out lately, which is wonderful! Especially since they often fit the Girls Underground theme. (I’ve profiled Vassa in the Night and Summer in Orcus already, and there’s the fantastic House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson, which wasn’t quite GU but still worth reading. I also happen to be reading an older book featuring Baba Yaga which I just found in a thrift store – The Dream Stealer by Gregory Maguire. And of course there are all the many books shown on this page.) But on to our featured book….

The Door by the Staircase by Katherine Marsh shows a somewhat softer side of the Russian witch, without ignoring the fact that she eats children. Mary, 12, is an orphan who tries to escape the orphanage by climbing through a chimney. While she doesn’t succeed, the next day she is suddenly adopted by the mysterious Madame Z, and taken to live on the outskirts of the town of Iris which is filled with (mostly fraudulent) magicians and mediums. She quickly makes friends with a boy who performs as an illusionist, and he helps her navigate her precarious situation when it is revealed that Madame Z is the dreaded witch of fairytales. She is also helped by several magical creatures, and Yaga’s stable hand Koschey, who will be instantly familiar (and suspicious) to anyone who has read Russian folklore. While Baba Yaga is a formidable opponent, a betrayal uncovers a bigger Adversary, and Mary must face this new foe, resist their temptations, and defeat them. In the end, she actually must save Baba Yaga rather than fleeing from her. And in doing so, fulfill that classic Girls Underground quest to return home – in this case, a new home and a new family she forges with her own tenacity.

“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.”

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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