What is Portal Fantasy?
One of the classic forms of fantasy literature is portal fantasy. Depending on the specific nature of the book, similar genres include cross world fantasy, alternate universe stories, and parallel worlds fiction (often sci-fi rather than fantasy).
Generally speaking, portal fantasy novels are stories that introduce a character living in our world, minding their own business (or perhaps sticking their curious noses where they shouldn’t). Either intentionally or quite by accident, characters pass through a portal—a doorway, a rabbit hole, a wardrobe, or a brick wall in a London train station—and are magically transported into another world or alternate reality.
You’re likely familiar with some of the popular portal stories, depending on your age. You might have fond memories of Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia captivated your childhood imagination. In recent years, J. K. Rowling introduced a new generation to portal fantasy books (and perhaps to reading in general!) with her popular Harry Potter series.
Are portal fantasy stories still popular?
Some say portal fantasy is now cliché. They think readers are bored with characters who fall through magical doorways into fantastical places. Readers of fantasy, they say, prefer to escape into another world without needing to worry about a character who needs to return to our world.
However, these types of stories continue to captivate and entertain us, young and old. Recent film adaptations of best-selling portal fantasy books suggest that it’s not only children who like to follow a main character down a rabbit hole. Classic examples of fantasy novels adapted for the big screen include Harry Potter for younger audiences, and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series for adult audiences. Additionally, examples of popular TV series based on fantasy books include Game of Thrones and The Shannara Chronicles (both are fantasy, but not portal fantasy).
If you’ve read our new book (or even if you’ve only read the synopsis), you know that Across the Fourwinds is based on an important “portal” that Will and Morgan discover in the Arden Forest.
Of course, I’m biased with regard to portal fantasy—or action-adventure fantasy, as I prefer to call Across the Fourwinds—but there is evidence that readers are as interested as always in portal fantasy stories. As one reader recently said, “As long as it’s a good story, it doesn’t matter if people label the genre cliché.” So true!
A few examples of modern portal fantasy stories
If you share my interest in portal fantasy, you might be interested in one of the following fantasy book series. All of them share the classic storyline where the protagonist ventures in and out of—and often back again—a fantasy world. Most of these are recently published. And as you’ll discover, the variety demonstrates the appeal of portal fantasy books to readers of all ages.
Please note: this is not a review of these books. They are on my “to read” list (I’ve started one of the series already). I’m listing these merely to illustrate my belief that portal fantasy is alive and well. And I have a suspicion that I’m not alone in wanting more great portal fantasy stories. While I work my way through as many of these as I can, I’ll review them and look for reader comments.
by Lev Grossman
I’m starting the list with this series because the target audience is slightly more mature (e.g. college age and up). And yet, The Magicians trilogy looks like an entirely appropriate read for young adults and adults who enjoyed the worlds of Hogwarts and Narnia.
Book 1: The Magicians
Quentin Coldwater loved reading fantasy books as a child. As a high school student, he’s admitted to a secret college of magic, which is initially pretty exciting. But he is soon disappointed and disillusioned. Then he learns of the dark history of the magical land of Fillory.
Most reviewers highly recommend this series to fans of Narnia and Harry Potter who are now adults. Each book gets progressively better (book 3 was a NY Times bestseller).
Book 2: The Magician King
Quentin, now king of Fillory, is restless. He and his friend Julia set off looking for adventure, but end up back in the real world. Together, they work to find their way back to Fillory.
“The Magician King is a rare achievement, a book that simultaneously criticizes and celebrates our deep desire for fantasy.”
—The Boston Globe
Book 3: The Magician’s Land
“Richly imagined and continually surprising…The Magician’s Land is the strongest book in Grossman’s series..”
—The New York Times Book Review
The Fourline Trilogy
by Pam Brondos
Readers who enjoy The Magicians might also be interested in following Natalie Barns, a college student who is called upon to help a mysterious group of people in a magical realm known as Fourline. What hooked me with this story is the very believable setting and protagonist. If you ever lived as a poor college student, struggling to keep your grades up while working part-time to finance your education, and trying to maintain commotion with family and friends, you’ll sympathize with Nat.
Book 1: Gateway to Fourline
Natalie Barns, a struggling college student finds a part-time job at a costume shop to help pay tuition. When she goes through the mysterious door in the backroom of the shop, her world is turned upside-down.
See Amazon reviews.
Book 2: On the Meldon Plain
See Amazon reviews.
Book 3: The Last Remnant
After Natalie is forced from Fourline, she longs to return to help in the struggle against its evil dictator. The situation is dire when she finally returns to Fourline in the battle against the Nala.
See Amazon reviews.
The Hidden Sea Tales trilogy
by A. M. Dellamonica
If you like to add a swashbuckling pirate adventure element to your fantasy world, you might be interested in diving in after twenty-four-year-old Sophie Hansa and discovering the world of Stormwrack. But don’t be too swayed by the pirate-y potential of this series; there’s more to it than that. I’ve noticed many Goodreads reviewers commenting on the slower pacing of these novels but enjoying the writing style and the development of the protagonist’s relationships and self-identity.
Book 1: Child of a Hidden Sea
The story begins with twenty-four-year-old Sophie Hansa in a San Francisco alley trying to save the life of a woman she believes is her aunt. She falls into the water and enters of an unfamiliar world known as Stormwrack.
“This was a solid, enjoyable book, entirely appreciable on its own while setting up interesting hooks for future installments.”―NPR
Book 2: A Daughter of No Nation
Sophie Hansa returns to our world, but longs to return to Stormwrack, frustrated that she cannot talk to anyone about her adventures. Suddenly, Garland Parrish shows up and Sophie is back to Stormwrack.
See Amazon reviews.
Book 3: The Nature of a Pirate
See Amazon reviews.
The Magonia Series
by Maria Dahvana Headley
From college and adult readers, I make a slight shift to a younger audience. With this shift, we move from the high seas up above the clouds beyond our atmosphere to the magical world of Magonia.
Book 1: Magonia
This is the story of 16-year-old Aza Ray, who struggles to survive—to breathe in fact—in our world, despite the best efforts of modern medicine. Aza appears to die on her sixteenth birthday, but awakens in the non-human world of Magonia. Book one is a “story about a girl caught between two worlds . . . two races . . . and two destinies.”
“Magonia is magical. A high-flying, refreshing, and literally out-of-the-blue fantasy with great characters, emotional depth, and a unique fantasy world that I never saw coming.”
—Victoria Aveyard, #1 New York Times Best selling author of Red Queen
Book 2: Aerie
“Gorgeous, hopeful, heroic, as far-out fantastical as a lost Bowie song—a wild and wonderful novel that makes you glad to be alive.” (Libba Bray, New York Times bestselling author of Lair of Dreams)
Manifold Worlds series
by Foz Meadows
Based on a reading of Goodreads reviews, the target audience is a bit confusing on this one. Some say the content is more suitable for adult readers. Others say that the characters and themes appeal only to teens. Probably one way to know for sure is to read it. 🙂
Book 1: An Accident of Stars
“A portal fantasy for grownups, with grit and realism, and characters I loved from the first page.”
– Trudi Canavan, author of the Black Magician trilogy.
Book 2: A Tyranny of Queens
Saffron Coulter returns from Kena and at risk of being put into psychiatric care. Saffron either needs to forget about Kena and fit in, or reject everything she ever knows and loves.
“The characterisation is fantastic. The conclusion is nerve-biting and explosive – and has dragons….”
– Liz Bourke for Tor.com
by Catherynne M. Valente (Author), Ana Juan (Illustrator)
I’m really looking forward to reading these books. While the series might appeal more to juvenile readers, many reviewers say that the themes and the vocabulary are adult. Educated adult. Or, educated adult with a Tim Burton-esque flair. I was instantly hooked by the titles, the cover illustrations, and the book descriptions. The icing on the cake is the unique portal fantasy element. I’ll be brief with this series since there are five books.
“Valente’s Fairyland is as bizarre and beautiful as ever, with a Wonderland-like un-logic that will keep readers both delighted and slightly off-balance.”
―The Horn Book
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
Twelve-year-old September lives with her parents in Omaha, Nebraska. One day, a mysterious man in a green jacket invites her on an adventure in Fairyland.
The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There
September is back in Omaha, but longs to return to Fairyland (you’re starting to see a pattern here in portal fantasies, right?). She returns, of course, and discovers that inhabitants have been losing their magic to the world of Fairyland Below.
The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two
Back home again, September longs for a new adventure. Eventually, she goes to the moon, needing to save Fairyland from a powerful moon-Yeti. Yes, moon-Yeti. How cool is that?
The Boy Who Lost Fairyland
A young troll named Hawthorn is taken by the Golden Wind and subsequently brought to live in Chicago as a changeling. When he turns 12, he returns to Fairyland, but things are not as they once were.
The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home
September is somehow crowned the Queen of Fairyland. But she discovers fierce competition for her crown.
Wayward Children series
by Seanan McGuire
Finally, the series that I plan to read last (but not least). For all of us who enjoy the incredible adventures undertaken by our favourite portal fantasy heroes, but who fail to wonder whatever becomes of them once they return to a mundane, earthly life: The Wayward Children series.
Book 1: Every Heart a Doorway
This book is about the children (and one in particular, named Nancy) who have left this world through some kind of magical portal and discovered unknown kingdoms. When they are no longer needed in those magical places, there’s Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. But things change at the Home when Nancy arrives.
“With Every Heart a Doorway, McGuire has created her own mini-masterpiece of portal fantasy — a jewel of a book that deserves to be shelved with Lewis Carroll’s and C. S. Lewis’ classics, even as it carves its own precocious space between them.”
Book 2: Down Among the Sticks and Bones
“Beautifully crafted and smartly written, this fairy-tale novella is everything that speculative fiction readers look for: fantastical worlds, diverse characters, and prose that hits home with its emotional truths.”
―Library Journal starred review
Book 3: Beneath the Sugar Sky
Rini returns from her magical adventure and finds her way to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. She must save the world, her mother, and (in doing so) herself. This book is scheduled for release January 9, 2018. So by the time I get to it, there might be a fourth book in the series!
See Amazon reviews.
Other Portal Fantasy Books
Obviously, this is a sampling of some of the new portal fantasy books that have been published in recent years.
What’s your favorite portal fantasy book? What would you recommend, and why? Please comment below.