So, I happened across this post: 5 Cliches in Portal Fantasy that Need to Stop
And that was immediately interesting. I mean, are there so many portal fantasies that important cliches have appeared in this sub-sub-genre? Maybe there are! I can think of one possibility: When the characters return to this world, they forget everything that happened to them in the other world. I absolutely detest that! I hate it in non-portal fantasies too. Dark is Rising, I’m looking at you. But I think this terrible kind of ending is pretty common in portal fantasies. That’s my impression, anyway.
But that’s ONE possible cliche that needs to stop. What are the others? Let’s see …
- Portals that require an object or a location. I don’t think I consider that a cliche. In fact, here’s the definition of “portal” — a doorway, gate, or other entrance, especially a large and imposing one. It seems odd to say that it’s cliched to have a portal in portal fantasy! But let’s look at the other four putative cliches …
- Portals that always work.
- Everyone in the linked worlds speaks a common language.
- It’s important to save the portal world, but not important to save Earth.
- There is only one great villain in the portal world.
I think this list is missing an important point. The REASON you can save the portal world is that there is one villain. Defeat the bad guy and there you go, the world has been saved! Or saved for now, or saved enough. I really think it’s a bit silly to say that the portal fantasy is ignoring problems back home. No, it isn’t. The problems back home aren’t solvable in the same sense as the problems in the secondary world. It’s just silly to say that the characters (or the author) ought to be focused on “poverty” on Earth but “defeating the dark lord” in the secondary world. The two problems are not on the same scale.
It’s true that it’s probably not sensible for everyone in both worlds to speak the same language, but I’m not sure that’s a cliche. I think saying “magically able to speak the language” is common, highly convenient for the author, and not the same as people in these disparate worlds happening to speak the same language.
Well, let’s move on. Here’s a different post: 8 Truly Transporting Portal Fantasy Novels
I know which portal fantasies spring to mind for me. In no order:
- The Fionavar Trilogy — this is the trilogy that made me a fan of Guy Gavriel Kay. Such beautiful writing! And Kay handles characters in ways that really appeal to me. Sure, the trilogy contains some details that don’t work all that well for me, particularly the Arthurian elements that are kind of wedged into the story. Nevertheless. Stunning writing, great characters, and many fantastic moments. And you know what, the ending worked for me too. None of this “and then they forgot” stuff.
- Red Moon and Black Mountain by Joy Chant. Wow, so beautiful. Rather odd plotting, which somehow works. This is one story where returning the protagonist to the real world moments after they departed actually works pretty well, and that’s because of this line: “Now we will show that we too can be generous. All that you have lost shall be restored, and all that you have gained remain untouched.” Here, by the way, is a post that argues that Kay borrowed plenty of symbolism and tropes from Chant’s book.
- Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy by Lani Taylor. This may be just about the highest-angst series I’ve ever actually liked. Here are my comments about this trilogy, which I loved very much, but I will say, it is the complete opposite of a low-tension trilogy.
- The Touchstone trilogy by Andrea K Höst, and yes, I know, this isn’t exactly a fantasy, but it’s very much a portal SF series, and also one of my all-time most-read series.
And yes, of course, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Obviously. (Very obviously.)
However, those I picked are my top choices that I think might not be on everyone’s list. There are lots of others I can think of that I didn’t like as well as these.
I wonder whether any of these three appear in the 8 Truly Transporting post? Let me take a look … Nope! Although I’ve read some of these plus I’ve got some others on my virtual TBR pile. Or, come to think of it, my physical TBR shelves. I’ve got Magonia, which has a lovely cover.
I just love that cover. But I’ve started the book twice and haven’t gone on with it. I think it looks good, but I haven’t been in the mood for it.
All right, while we’re on the topic, here’s a post at tor.com: Exploring the Four Types of Portal Narratives
And the four types immediately make sense.
- Unknown destination, voluntary passage
- Unknown destination, involuntary passage
- Known destination, voluntary passage
- Known destination, involuntary passage
With suggestions for each type at the linked post. Here’s the one that interests me most:
In Alix E. Harrow’s remarkable debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, January Scaller owes her comfortable childhood to her father’s wealthy employer, Locke. When January’s father dies in a foreign land while on one of Locke’s errands, Locke assures the young girl that he will serve as her guardian. Then the bookish girl stumbles over certain texts Locke should have locked up. January begins to suspect that she has abilities valuable to Locke and that far from being a beloved ward, she is merely a treasured possession. But there are doors that can offer someone like January an escape from her kindly jailor.
I’m interested because I loved her story that is up for a Hugo this year: Mr. Death. If you haven’t read it yet, the link goes to an online version. I wasn’t familiar with Alix Harrow previously, but now I’m interested in trying other work of hers, and here’s this portal fantasy. Have any of you read it? What did you think?
I suppose I’ll end this post by pointing out that in the double-portal fantasy of The Death’s Lady series,
- Portals do not require an object or location.
- Portals do not always work, and in fact can be opened only at very restricted times or with a serious sacrifice.
- People in the different worlds don’t speak the same language.
- But yes, there’s basically one villain and he does get defeated.
- It’s kind of an involuntary passage to an unknown destination, followed by an involuntary passage to a sort-of-known location.
And while we’re on the subject, I notice that Shines Now and Heretofore is hovering at 4.8 stars, making it the highest-rated of my books, I’m pretty sure. So if you’ve reviewed it — or rated it — thank you!