Portal fiction allows us to believe that at any moment we might be spirited away from our daily routine and into another world or time. In this new reality, would we be heralded as the chosen one? Rejected? Faced with prejudiced threats?
The portal fiction subgenre usually features multiple worlds and realities between which protagonists travel. Although we'll probably never find a door to fairy land in our apartment, or suddenly find ourselves in another time, we can travel vicariously through these 12 portal fantasy books. Because after all, aren't books the most powerful portal of them all? (You bet your wardrobe they are.)
The Infinity Concerto
The first book of a duology by Greg Bear, The Infinity Concerto focuses around a unique portal: a piece of music. Sixteen-year-old aspiring poet Michael is suddenly transported to the Realm of the Sidhedark after listing to a concerto by Arno Waltiri, a recently deceased family friend. If Michael is to return home and leave the strange and sometimes terrifying world of Sidhedark behind, he must find his muse within this unfamiliar world.
The Seventh Sword
Wallie Smith is dying in the hospital. Or at least, he used to be — now he has awoken in an unfamiliar world, and an unfamiliar body, but is aware of the pain and fear he recently felt. Miraculous circumstances have transformed Willie into a barbarian swordsman who owes loyalty to the Goddess. Each book of this epic sword and sorcery saga by late Canadian author Dave Duncan will transport you to an unforgettable world full of action and magic.
The Phantom Tollbooth
This gorgeous story is aimed at children, but will also resonate with adults, even those who don't have a nostalgic connection to it. The book follows Milo, a young boy who comes home from school one day to find he's been sent a mysterious tollbooth. Bored and unimpressed by his life, Milo decides to drive his toy car through the tollbooth for lack of anything better to do. To his surprise, the tollbooth transports him to the Kingdom of Wisdom, a land beyond our own. Wordplay in the Kingdom of Wisdom is literal—for instance Milo’s traveling companion is Tock the watchdog, an enormous dog with a clock in his sides—and desire for knowledge is the only thing that can restore harmony to the land. The Phantom Tollbooth is a sweetly absurd enduring classic, with illustrations by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer that help bring the Kingdom of Wisdom vividly to life.
The Dark Tower
Stephen King’s sprawling fantasy series follows the last gunslinger of Mid-World, Roland Deschain, on his quest to the Dark Tower. The Tower is the lynchpin that holds together reality as we know it, as well as countless alternate realities that we cannot see. Throughout the seven-plus-book series, Roland and his fellowship (or ka-tet) must use a variety of portals—which frequently take the form of free-floating doors—to travel throughout the worlds on their quest to save the tower.
Child of a Hidden Sea
This delightful trilogy follows Sophie Hansa, a marine biology student and long-distance swimmer. While trying to save the life of her estranged biological aunt, Sophie is transported to a world of island nations known as Stormwrack. Although Stormwrack bears some similarities to Earth, it's fundamentally different in many ways. Sophie must adapt to Stormwrack's unfamiliar languages, as well as its emphasis on magic over science. Unlike many protagonists in portal fiction, Sophie is an unwelcome presence in this new world. Curiosity is considered taboo in Stormwrack, and Sophie's desire to learn everything she can about this unfamiliar land will lead to troubled waters for her and those she meets.
Outlander kicks off shortly after World War II. Claire, a nurse, and her husband Frank are on a second honeymoon in Inverness, Scotland, where Frank researches his family history. While investigating a series of standing stones, Claire suddenly finds herself transported back to the same location in the 18th century, and comes face-to-face with Frank’s distant ancestor Captain Jack Randall. Randall is knocked out by members of Clan Mackenzie, including Jamie Fraser, a soldier to whom Claire confides her strange story of time travel. Soon the two fall for each other, launching a romance that will span centuries and the globe. Outlander defies easy categorization, since it combines characteristics of fantasy, sci-fi, history, and romance. But if you want a portal tale that will sweep you off your feet, look no further.
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Shades of Magic
V.E. Schwab’s immersive Shades of Magic series centers around alternate but concurrent versions of London—Red London, Grey London, White, and, long ago, Black. Kell of the magician sect Antari is one of the few remaining Travelers, so named for their ability to travel between the different Londons. He's also a smuggler whose side-hustle will have grave consequences. Kell unwittingly unleashes dark magic, and must struggle to prevent the other Londons from facing the same catastrophic fate as Black London.
More than any other title on this list, Kindred — which Butler described as a "grim fantasy" — uses portal fiction as a lens with which to expose truths about our everyday world and current time. Dana, a black 26-year-old writer living in California in 1976, suddenly finds herself transported to the antebellum South. In her new reality, Dana is a slave on a plantation in Maryland, where she becomes intimately connected to both her black and white ancestors. Dana is pushed back and forth between her existence in Maryland and her modern life in L.A. with her white husband. The novel explores the abominations of the pre-Civil War South as well as the racism Dana faces as a black woman married into a white family in 1970s California.
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The Chronicles of Narnia
This C.S. Lewis classic is a defining example of the portal fiction genre. The seven books in Lewis’ fantasy saga center around the world of Narnia. In the first book, the four Pevensie children enter Narnia through the back of a cupboard they discover in the wardrobe of Professor Digory Kirke. The Pevensies are staying at the professor’s house as part of a program that relocates children from the chaos of air strike-ravaged London to the countryside during World War II. Although ordinary children in their non-Narnia lives, in Narnia the Pevensies are instrumental in bringing a new era of prosperity and peace to the land.
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The Fionavar Tapestry
In this gripping trilogy, five law and medical students are transported from Toronto to the 'first world' of Fionavar by the mage Loren Silvercloak. Fionavar is the world from which our own world's mythology comes, and is populated by figures from Arthurian, Welsh, and Norse mythology, Chinese literature, and other storytelling traditions. As the first world, the state of Fionavar impacts our own: cataclysmic destruction in Fionavar will ripple out throughout existence, leaving no world untouched.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its companion novel Through the Looking Glass follow a young girl's adventures in Wonderland, an arguably terrifying land where anthropomorphism runs rampant. Although Alice believes she accessed this disorienting world via falling down a rabbit hole (and, in the second title, crawling through a mirror), her adventures may have just been a dream. Regardless, Carroll's classic novels have likely inspired nightmares in many a young reader.
This adult fantasy trilogy pays loving if often irreverent tribute to the classics that inspired it, including C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. When the trilogy opens, Quentin Coldwater is a Broolyn student obsessed with Fillory and Further, a fictitious series of books about the Chatwins, a family who discover a Narnia-like land called Fillory. But the Fillory stories are more real than Quentin could have ever imagined. When Quentin is recruited into the secret Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, he learns that Fillory is a real place, and that he and his peers are capable of traveling to it.
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Every Heart a Doorway
This unexpectedly gorgeous book, part one of the Wayward Children trilogy, explores what happens to children who have accessed a fantasy land through a portal, but have since returned to their pedestrian life. Every student at Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children has taken a transformative journey, and now must contend with the feelings of rejection and despair that accompany rejoining to 'reality.'
This article was originally published January 9th, 2018.
Featured image from the cover of "Kindred."
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