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“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, 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 Giant Under the Snow by John Gordon is another great children’s fantasy book from the late 60’s, like The Gruesome Green Witch and A Walk Out of the World, albeit only an Honorable Mention as far as the GU archetype goes.

Jonk (short for Jonquil, one of the more interesting GU names I’ve come across) wanders off from a school trip in the “backlands” one day and stumbles across a strange artifact and a Green Man figure embedded in the landscape. She is chased by a black dog and rescued by a mysterious woman named Elizabeth. Jonk and her two male companions learn more about the legend of the Green Man and are pursued by terrifying leather-skinned men when they seek out Elizabeth, who tells them the story of an ancient fight against an evil warlord who is trying to rise again. Jonk and her friends must hide the artifact from the adversary, but at least they get one big perk – magical devices from Elizabeth that allow them to fly! In the end, Jonk does end up facing off against the warlord one on one and thwarts his return.

Technically, I suppose this book fulfills many of the key plot points of a Girls Underground story, but ultimately something feels missing and it doesn’t quite fit the classic pattern. Perhaps it’s the lack of any meaningful interaction between Jonk and the adversary (he never even gets a chance to speak), the absence of a transition into another world, and her normal home life.

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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.

51t3lj1pz-l-_sl160_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.

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“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.

61QznurNdlL._SL160_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.

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“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.”

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“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).

“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.

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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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