Portal fantasy

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 …


  1. 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 …
  2. Portals that always work.
  3. Everyone in the linked worlds speaks a common language.
  4. It’s important to save the portal world, but not important to save Earth.
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

  1. Unknown destination, voluntary passage
  2. Unknown destination, involuntary passage
  3. Known destination, voluntary passage
  4. 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,

  1. Portals do not require an object or location.
  2. Portals do not always work, and in fact can be opened only at very restricted times or with a serious sacrifice.
  3. People in the different worlds don’t speak the same language.
  4. But yes, there’s basically one villain and he does get defeated.
  5. 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!

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19 thoughts on “Portal fantasy”

  1. I really disliked Magonia – the main character does not make good choices, or have good radar for who she should trust, and it was a frustrating read for me. Of course, lots of people loved it, so mileage may vary.

    Does that one where people can travel into/through maps count? I think so, since they could travel to mythical places if the mapmaker believed they were real. I’m having trouble remembering the name – the 1st one took place around the events of Hawaii being stolen from its last queen.

  2. Pamela Dean’s Hidden Land series is my all-time favorite portal fantasy, and I always wonder why it isn’t better known. Maybe I have strange niche tastes, but it seems to me that if you like Neumeier, McKillip and McKinley, you’d like Dean.

  3. There’s a passage in Aaron Alston’s Doc Sidhe where a character proves that Earth speaks the same language as the Fair World — by quoting Shakespeare and asking about the rhyme, and it turns out that they have his plays, too — and both the characters find it a bit creepy.

    Hmm. . . . I will rate The Princess Goes Into the Forest, because it’s my only portal fantasy.

    1. yes — sorta
    2. no.
    3. yes, but there’s a reason why
    4. No. The portal world is not in danger. Nor is the kingdom.
    5. No. There are several villains.

  4. I second both the un-recommendation of Magonia, which I felt I ought to have liked but didn’t (mainly because of the protagonist), and the recommendation of the delightful Hidden Land series (which I loved for many reasons).
    Further, I loved the 100 Cupboards series by N.D. Wilson, which is a loving homage to The Wizard of Oz. Also, Howl’s Moving Castle is technically a portal fantasy – much of Diana Wynne Jones’s work is.

  5. My favorite portal book from my younger days is Knee Deep in Thunder by Sheila Moon. I should find my copy and reread it, because I know I loved it but remember only fragments. The description mentions Navajo mythology, which I am sure I didn’t recognize on the first time through. I do still quote one interchange occasionally: At the beginning of the book, Maris, an unhappy teenager, has run from her parents fighting and meets a large, somewhat pedantic, talking insect who will be her guide through the portal. He asks about the fighting and asks what her point of view is. “I just want everyone to be happy.” “That may be an admirable sentiment, but it is hardly a point of view.” This was … actually a useful message for a born people-pleaser.

    More recently, I like T Kingisher’s Summer in Orcus. It has some truly delightful companions for Summer’s quest, and there’s a little discussion near the end about what she’s achieved: we don’t usually get to conquer evil forever, but she has solved a current threat for Orcus.

  6. Oh, just thought of the Catheryne Valente fairyland books, and Seanan Maguirre’s Every Heart a Doorway series. Although, the first book of the doorway one has a lot of bits that take place after various portal adventures have ended.

  7. Many good suggestions; thank you all! I’ve never heard of Knee Deep in Thunder, but what a wonderful title! And I love that quote.

  8. I thought I was the only one who’d ever heard of Knee Deep in Thunder . Did you ever read the sequel? The duology was reprinted a while back as an omnibus called Deepest Roots.

    The last time I pulled my copies off the shelf I could ax-grinding, but they were mostly still enjoyable.

  9. Reading MLN Hanover (aka Daniel Abraham) urban fiction. And come across the best UF line I have seen in a while.
    “Aaron arrived in the middle of the afternoon behind the wheel of a black Hummer S2. The car was like a Jeep on too many steroids—muscular, masculine, and vaguely unhealthy.”

    The book is nothing like his usual grimdark stuff.

  10. Elaine T, I have not read the sequel to Knee Deep in Thunder. It looks like they are in print as paperbacks but not available in ebook, which is a shame. I am glad to hear they mostly held up on reread.

  11. This just reads like someone’s personal complaint list about portal fantasies. It’s been one of my favorite sub-genres of fantasy for a long time. Portal fantasies at their best are all about throwing someone into a brand new world. They can be survival stories, fish out of water stories, wish-fulfillment stories, or “wouldn’t it be neat if” stories.

    I’ve recommended it before, but the one I always go back to is The Twelve Kingdoms by Fuyumi Ono. The language problem there is interesting—Youko can speak to anyone with no issues, but the friends that come with her don’t have the language, and require her to translate (actual reason this works has to do with the divine nature empowering government officials, amusingly enough—anyone appointed to government is immortal and can understand all language. But this comes with its own drawbacks, primarily that the heavens actually DO keep an eye on you, and if you mismanage things there are consequences). Youko was appointed Empress, but doesn’t know it, and even after she finds out, still struggles with her people-pleasing nature conflicting with the hard decisions that come with her new role.

    I will third the un-recommendation of Magonia. The “teen love triangle” was absolutely awful, and there were other things that bothered me as well.

  12. Well, Magonia is certainly sifting right on down to the bottom of the TBR pile, I must say. What a shame. But if most of you are giving it a thumbs down, I can hardly believe I’d like it at all.

    By all means recommend books multiple times! I know I appreciate people continually pointing out their favorites, and I’m sure other people do as well.

  13. I had no idea Hanover was a pseudonym for Abraham. I like him a lot, and would love to read some less dark stuff from him. Thank you!

  14. Oh, the 100 Cupboards! Loved that series! Brilliant writing, lovely characters: highly recommend! (Did not notice that it was an homage to Oz … I rather thought it was Narnia being homaged, but is probably both. Will have to reread with that in mind!)

    Also highly recommend Summer in Orcus—very much re-writing the paradigm of the portal fantasy in a thoughtful way. When I reviewed it I said, “You know you’ve found a special book when the way a plot comes together makes you cry, it’s just so perfect.”

    I loved The 10,000 Doors Of January—the language, the story-within-story (doors within doors) structure, the fiercely independent, loving characters. The dog named Bad. And speaking of portals and her short stories, you have to read https://apex-magazine.com/short-fiction/a-witchs-guide-to-escape-a-practical-compendium-of-portal-fantasies/.

    A very different portal fantasy is Hiromi Goto’s Half World duology. Vivid and weird (as in magical weird, but also different from European magic because it’s based on Japanese mythology.)

    One of my earliest portal fantasies (after Narnia), was A Walk Out of the World, by Ruth Nichols. I can’t remember anything about it except how much I loved it at the time! Have no idea if it would hold up on reread because I haven’t been able to get my hands on it

  15. A Walk out of the World is excellent. It holds up well on re-reading. And does a lot in very few pages.
    Did you ever find her other books, like The Marrow of the World or Song of the Pearl? I am grateful to the librarians of my childhood for having those books available. Marrow isn’t quite as good as Walk – some parts seemed rushed, but it was still good.

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