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.

Tabula Rasa (the Belgian tv series on Netflix) is perhaps the defining example of the sub-trope of “forgetting herself” in the Girls Underground archetype – its protagonist Mie has retrograde amnesia; she can’t remember anything, and it may be her downfall.

Mie, an adult, has suffered memory loss due to a car accident. As she sits in a mental hospital, suspected in the disappearance of a man she can’t remember, she slowly pieces together the events that led there. Her family can’t be trusted – she is on her own. Her daughter has been acting disturbingly since the accident and she may have to save her. Her companion in the present is a pyromaniac who befriends her on the ward – in the past, it is the man she may have killed. Time is running out as we find out that he may still be alive, and she must remember in order to help him.

Because of the mystery angle to this show, we don’t discover who the real adversary is until the last episode. And unfortunately, Mie does not defeat them herself, meaning that this is more of an honorable mention, all told. But there is a betrayal by a companion, a return to home (in the form of many flashbacks, and when Mie briefly escapes), and of course, she forgets herself. Not to mention, it is a pretty engaging story, and pretty terrifying to imagine being that adrift from moment to moment.

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.

 

Just resurfaced after an extended Alice Days holiday, and had a chance to update my list of Alice movies with several new ones (mostly awful, but one really interesting short art film from the 80s). Check it out (toward the bottom of the page) the next time you need an infusion of Wonderland!

Not a Girls Underground song specifically, but this little Tom Waits ditty about life in the underground feels appropriate nonetheless.

NB: I highly recommend watching the MST3K version of this movie if you feel some strange desire to watch it at all, because then at least there will be comedic commentary alongside this utter dreck. This ended up being only an Honorable Mention, so not really worth the agony – but I’m here to take the bullet by watching all potential GU movies in the interest of research!

Alien From L.A. (1988) stars Kathy Ireland as Wanda, a resident of Los Angeles with an inexplicable and extremely annoying squeaky voice. After being dumped by her boyfriend, she finds out that her archaeologist father has died while exploring in North Africa. She travels there to sort out his affairs only to discover his notes about Atlantis (which was apparently a UFO which crashed and sunk). Wanda finds a hidden chamber underneath her father’s apartment and down she goes into the underground!

Deep beneath the surface, she discovers her father is being held and tortured as a spy. She enlists the help of a miner named Gus and a rogue named Charmin to help rescue him. She also manages to go from supposedly “nerdy” to supposedly “hot” along the way, completing the most ridiculous and superficial of GU transformations. Wanda herself is also now being pursued by the same Atlantean government agents who are holding her father, as well as minions of a crime lord (played by future Oompa Loompa Deep Roy!).

Eventually she is captured by a general, and her companions fight the evil forces so she and her father can escape (so, no real one-on-one showdown with a singular Adversary). She returns to L.A. and hangs out at the beach in a bikini (because now she is hot).

“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.

“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.

The Girls Underground Story Oracle


Coming soon: an exciting new oracle deck based on the Power of Story! Made possible by Kickstarter.

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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