The portal fantasy: a cornerstone of the genre, and a symbol of all the beauty and strangeness and heartbreak and triumph to come. Whether it’s hiding in the back of a wardrobe, or through a door in the wall, or straddling invisible lines in reality, portals lurk among us, and transport us to impossible worlds. Well, we wish.
Portal fantasy thrives on the crossing of the threshold; when characters make the leap into the unknown, fueled by any number of emotions—loneliness, desire, boredom, adventure, revenge, ennui. What’s on the other side though, is where the story starts. Wonder hums through our characters, like electricity in their blood, and they are enamored with the new world before them, filled to the brim with magic, color, light, and most of all, opportunity. The chance to be someone else, or become who they’ve always wanted to be, or even just to live away from who they were. Portal fantasies endure because, by escaping from who or what they’ve been told to be, our heroes are given the chance to really learn who they can be.
Below are some of our favorite portal fantasies, from the classical to the modern. Each, in their own way, deals with the central question that thrums through the subgenre: who am I, and where do I belong? Some of the more modern stories turn this question on its head, and take the form in strange new directions.
The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis
Perhaps the definitive portal fantasy, the series that launched a thousand other books, C. S. Lewis’s classic seven book saga thrusts children of war-time Earth into the wonder and beauty of Narnia, and is a seminal work for its discussion of fantasy, war, leadership, power, magic, and, as was the author’s wont, religion. Lewis’s world of magic, dimension-hopping rings, ice queens, lion kings, and talking animals has inspired generations of writers to come, and his explorations of messiah figures, salvation, and wickedness provide plenty of food for thought when it comes to dissecting the role of imagery in fantasy, then and now. While there are many aspects of this series invite the taking of umbrage (the rather hurtful treatment of Susan, the heavy-handed allegory), the imagination and the pure joy of the writing of Lewis cannot be disregarded.
Paperback $15.50 | $17.00
The Magicians Trilogy, by Lev Grossman
Maybe if Digory and Polly from The Magician’s Nephew searched long and hard enough, they would find this dark mirror to their own story. Kicking off in The Magicians, Lev Grossman’s trilogy mashes the basic concept behind The Chronicles of Narnia, throws in a better part of Harry Potter, and shoots the whole thing full of modern-day angst, millennial ennui, and a harsh dose of reality for our titular magicians. Quentin Coldwater, gifted but troubled, is having a hard time making sense of life, and even less sense of wasting time at an Ivy League school. But when he’s given the chance to join Brakebills Academy, a school that will actually teach him magic, he thinks he’s found some semblance of purpose. But after graduating, he finds himself back in the depressing mire of job-hunting, paycheck-stretching, and everyday distractions. It’s only when he thinks he’s found a door into the world of his treasured childhood novels, Fillory, that he feels he has a chance at happiness, at purpose. Grossman tackles many tropes in this series, but not least is one that lies at the hear of the portal fantasy. He shows that problems don’t just go away when you enter a new world; soon enough, it’s obvious to everyone but Quentin that the world he occupies is not the problem. Along the way, Grossman addresses mental illness, addiction, power, and what it means to grow up. Definitely one not to miss if you’re looking for a more adult, take on the subgenre.
The Fairyland series, by Catherynne M. Valente
There is little that Valente cannot touch and turn to gold. In this five-book series about a young girl named September who finds herself bored with 1940s Nebraska and is whisked away to Fairyland by a dapper gentleman dressed in all emerald and his leopard, Valente tackles the portal fantasy in the vein of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. But the way she goes about it is absolutely her, full of delicious, poetic writing; a focus on the strengths of friendship, family, and oneself; a fondness for Omniscient Narration; and an understanding of the power of growing up and learning to become yourself. As September ages through the years, her role in Fairyland changes, and by the end, Valente has illustrated how to grow up, and how just because you’re older, it doesn’t mean there’s not a place for magic in your life. The world can be scary, yes, and finding your heart, even more terrifying. But if you are as good as you can be, and have friends by your side, the journey may not be any easier, but it certainly won’t be as hard. Warning: here be giant red wyverarys, deep blue marids, changelings, Winds of All Sorts, Magicks of All Kinds, Underworlds, Overworlds, and a wombat of delicate temper.
Every Heart A Doorway, by Seanan McGuire
While this may not be strictly a portal fantasy, it in no way can be left out. This is McGuire’s story of children who have been forced from their personal portal worlds—kicked out, left behind, or tricked away—who, having returned, find they were often missing for years, or assumed dead, and are totally unprepared for the real world. They must get help. Enter Eleanor West, another reluctant outcast from a portal world, who knows how hard it can be; through her school, she helps these wayward children reclaim their sanity, and their lives. But Nancy, the new girl from an Underworld, doesn’t feel she fits in amongst the other children. Then some of them begin to show up murdered, which doesn’t help a bit. McGuire’s dark novella tackles everything from gender and sexuality, to being lost in the world, to examining what the thirst to belong will do to you—and worse, what the need to get back to a place where you belong will push you to do. It is a story brimming with heart and pain and joy, and is absolutely one to read if you’re looking for a new twist on the portal fantasy.
Paperback $14.99 | $16.99
The Shades of Magic, by V. E. Schwab
One of the most popular fantasy series in recent memory, V. E. Schwab’s tale of multiple Londons, dark magic, pirates, and outcasts follows the adventures of a street thief named Delilah Bard in Grey London, (our Earth, for the most part), who runs across a mysterious red-haired young man in a multi-sided coat, with one entirely black eye. This is brooding, powerful magician Kell, the last traveler of Red London, whose powerful blood magic lets him cross into multiple realities. Where Lilah’s Grey London is drab and magicless, Kell’s Red London is bursting with color and power in the form of the river of magic that runs through its heart. Together, these two battle demons, inside and out, as forces in two other worlds, one tyrannical, one a lifeless husk, rise against them and those they care about. Schwab’s world(s) are, in turn, beautiful and terrible, decadent and haunted, and wonderfully rendered, and she does not shy from anything: romance, violence, or heart. Definitely a series to check out before the release of the third book, A Conjuring of Light, in 2017.
Coraline, by Neil Gaiman
One of Gaiman’s earlier novels, with a successful movie adaptation from Laika Studios, Coraline is one of those deceptively terrifying books that draw you with mysterious descriptions, and then hold you tight as the scares and the creeps come faster and faster. Coraline and her family move to a new house, and young Coraline is pretty fed up with it; it’s old, it’s boring, and her parents do not give her the attention she wants. But when she discovers the key to a locked door in the living room, she goes through into a different world: a big, beautiful, lavish house, with parents who shower her with attention and treats, with entertainment around every corner. It is perfect. So perfect, she doesn’t even mind that her Other Mother and Other Father have buttons for eyes. And that they don’t like when she leaves. And, in fact, don’t want her to go at all. Gaiman’s spooky story is a prime illustration of how sometimes, an imperfect world is a perfectly fine thing, and that what you journey to find may have been in front of you all along.
The Stormwrack series, by A. M. Dellamonica
Avast! Dellamonica wastes no time in shunting her protagonist, marine biologist Sophie, Hansa, straight from our world into the sea-heavy world of Stormwrack, a system of island nations that are a part of no world she has ever visited before, one of ships and magic, Sophie is utterly lost, but soon finds she’s landed herself in the middle of a political broil that could not only dismantle this world, but the family she never knew existed. Dellamonica’s novel further pursue the idea of family, and her shrouded past, in the sequel, where she finds that her biological parents are actually of Stormwrack. Combining the science of our world with the magic of another, Sophie makes for a brilliant protagonist, and the trials and travails that Dellamonica is looking to put her through in the just-released The Nature of A Pirate promise to up the stakes evenfurther! Be sure not to miss this wonderful, Lambda Award-nominated series.
Magonia, by Maria Dahvana Headley
Maria Dahvana Headley is a literary chimera of the highest order; there is very little she cannot write. In her YA series that kicks off with Magonia and extends to recently released sequel Aerie, she tackles the portal trope, but also chronic illness, destructive families, made families, and the strength hiding within ourselves. Aza Rey has been sick her whole life, but no one’s ever been able to tell her why; she just can’t seem to catch her breath, as if her body is rejecting the very air. But she’s always gotten by, especially with her best friend Jason at her side. Except one day, she dies. Something within her gives out. But then, she opens her eyes, and she is in the sky, aboard a ship. And a women holds her tightly, and she is filled with joy at her daughter’s return. Aza Rey’s journey into the skies, and the kingdom of Magonia that exists there is (pardon the pun) breathtaking, joyous, dark, and dangerous. Aza Rey’s voice is something to behold, and I urge you to follow her through the clouds, and to whatever stories lay beyond.
What’s your favorite portal fantasy?