In fantasy there are often two camps of readers. Epic fantasy fans love the completely immersive experience of losing yourself in a new world, where everything is different and magic things are as normal as breathing. Urban fantasy fans prefer the familiar setting of our own world, with magic and monsters layered into the streets we know, as it has a lower barrier of entry in terms of believability and expectations. But there is a way to have your cake and eat it, too. There is a subgenre of fantasy known as portal fantasy. And some of your favorite books when you were a kid? Those were portal fantasies. Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Chronicles of Narnia books? All portal fantasies.
The idea is that our hero or heroine is a regular resident of good ole planet earth (or at least thinks they are) and one day they find a door, a spell, a pill, or a wardrobe and they travel from our world to a fantasy world. In that strange new world, they serve as the ambassador for the reader, everything just as new to them as it is to us. They get to ask questions, and poke around to try to figure out the rules of the new world. They are relatable for the reader and the reader secretly wishes they could find the portal too. Since Lev Grossman finishes up his Magicians trilogy with Magician’s Land this week, I thought I would round up a few more of my favorites.
The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman
Starting with The Magicians, Lev Grossman has created a portal fantasy world that both leans heavily on the readers memories of childhood favorites like the Narnia books and Harry Potter and yet also creates something new and transporting on its own. Quentin Coldwater is in high school as the series opens, brilliant but obsessed with a set of children’s books about a land called Fillory (read Narnia). He is unexpectedly invited to apply to a special college called Brakebills where he learns that magic is real. The first book is mostly a more grown-up Hogwarts with smoking drinking and sex. But he also finds out that Fillory is real, and the portal aspects of the novel kick in as Quentin and his friends travel to this land that they had read about in books. This series is an amazing combination of the magical and the everyday, where the places you dream about — wizardry schools and make-believe lands you can rule as a king — may be full of magic and wonder but they won’t take away your problems. Angsty young adults are still angsty in Fillory.
Child of a Hidden Sea by A.M. Dellamonica
Sophie Hansa has been watching the home of her birth mother, a woman she’s been desperately searching. When she sees her aunt attacked, she leaps in to help, only to find herself suddenly transported into the middle of a sea in a world not her own. She is rescued and learns she is in Stormwrack, a beautiful and magical world. But her relatives are pretty unhappy she’s there and she’s soon ensnared in the dangerous local politics. The beginning is a little confusing, but it’s confusing for Sophie, too — that’s sort of the point of portal fantasy, as you and the hero get to be confused together as you are thrown into this strange new land — and it soon smooths out. When someone she cares about is in danger, Sophie will have to decide whether to stay in Stormwrack or return to her old life. There’s a lot of action and excitement, but the best thing about this new novel is the world of Stormwrack. I can’t wait to go back.
Mordant’s Need by Stephen R. Donaldson
The Mirror of Her Dreams and A Man Rides Through
Stephen R. Donaldson has actually written a much more famous portal fantasy series — the many-parted downer called The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever that starts with Lord Foul’s Bane. But while I enjoyed the first trilogy of that series when I first read it, the Donaldson series that I truly love is the duology called Mordant’s Need. It’s the story of lonely New Yorker Terisa Morgan. She is from a rich family, but feels isolated from everyone around her. She’s filed her apartment with mirrors to try to remind herself she still exists, but one night a man named Geraden crashes through her mirrors. He’s from another world, a world that needs her. Terisa agrees to go with him back to Mordant, but she is over her head in this new world as well. Just like Terisa, the reader starts out confused and frustrated and not knowing who to trust. She won’t be able to save their world until she recognizes her own worth and seizes her own power.
The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay
Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire,and The Darkest Road
I’m a hard-core Kay fan, but I have a special soft spot for the college-aged, angst-filled romantic sweep of the Finovar Tapestry. It might not have all the polish of his later works, but emotionally it packs a wallop. Five University of Toronto students are transported by the wizard Loren Silvercloak to Finovar, a world – the first world – where all stories originate. The Unraveller, Rakoth Maugrim, is trying to destroy all the worlds, and these five are the best hope to stop him. Kay builds a very Tolkien-esque world in Fionavar (makes sense, he worked on the Tolkien estate, completing the Silmarilion from Tolkien’s notes). But the themes here, of personal sacrifice and destiny versus free-will are powerfully illustrated with these ordinary young people who have to become more than they were, make terribly difficult choices, and stop the forces of evil.
Darwath series by Barbara Hambly
The Time of the Dark, The Walls of Air, and The Armies of Daylight
Barbara Hambly actually wrote two great series about young women being transported from our world to a world that needed them more (the other is the also excellent Windrose Chronicles, that starts with The Silent Tower). Wizard Ingold Inglorien crossed the void to our world and approaches grad student Gil Patterson, who has been dreaming of a world being attacked by dark creatures. Ingold wants Gil to help keep the last Prince of Dar safe in her realm, but when he hears of her dreams he realizes the Dark is coming and no world is safe. Through the trilogy Gil and a drifter from our world named Rudy will help Ingold fight the Dark. This is a little dated at the beginning, having been written in the 1980s, but it remains one of my favorite of Hambly’s series. The evil that Gil and Rudy are helping fight are a little vague, in a perfectly terrifying way — kind of like pure darkness with teeth. I think this and other favorite portals appeal to me as they give me characters that could never reach their full potential in our world. They need to take the trip.
Neverwhereby Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is one of my all-time favorite authors, and he seems inordinately fond of the portal fantasy. The marvelous children’s book Coraline, the lovely romantic fairy tale that is Stardust, and of course Neverwhere. Richard Mayhew is a perfectly ordinary man living an ordinary life when he stops to help a bleeding girl on a London sidewalk. Her name is Door, and she is running from two very horrible henchmen named Croup and Vandermar. Door is able to opens passageways anywhere she wishes to go, and because Door wants Richard’s help to find out who has killed her family, she introduces him to a whole magical London that exists beneath his own — London Below. Danger, adventure and unbridled imagination make up this other London and poor hapless Richard will need to step up his game to survive.
The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Baker
Recently dumped and with her academic prospects stalled, it seemed wonderful when Nora first wandered off the forest path and ended up at a crazy estate full of eccentric but gorgeous people pursuing nothing but pleasure. Even Nora herself is somehow more beautiful. But she soon realizes it is all a trick, there is darkness beneath the glamour, and she is a virtual prisoner. A wizard rescues her and teaches her magic, but when a chance to return to her old life presents itself, will she stay? Although Nora is a little more passive than I like my heroines, this does have some lovely imagery. It reads like two books — Nora’s time at the mansion, and her time with Aruendial in his quiet home. A touch of romance helped make this a pretty good debut novel.