Lists

So You Want to Read Portal Fantasy: Here’s Where to Start

 

In portal fantasy, the characters are typically normal people like you and I who have traveled through a doorway of some sort into a fantastic world. The doorway need not be an actual door: The portal could be a book, talisman, or magic mirror. These journeys aren’t always by choice, and in some portal fantasies, the quest to find a way to return to the “real” world may become the story’s primary narrative.

In putting together this list, we thought it best to distinguish portal fantasy from time travel fiction. Thus, books that feature portals and other plot devices that take characters into the past or future of our own world were not included. In addition, we tried to narrow in on stories about regular people who cross into fantastic worlds, so there are no novels here featuring magicians who travel through portals, our logic being that having magical powers makes the portal just part and parcel of a magical existence. That said, books about people who discover their powers after journeying to the new world still made the list.

We realize that these kinds of decisions sometimes default to a matter of personal opinion. If there’s a book you think should have been included, we encourage you to mention it in the comments section.

  • The cover of the book The Chronicles of Narnia

    The Chronicles of Narnia

    Generations of readers have taken the journey through C. S. Lewis’ magical wardrobe and into the world of Narnia, and for good reason: It is a well-crafted fantasy world that offers something for everyone. While it is true that the Chronicles are Christian allegorical fiction, that shouldn’t stop people of other faiths, or no faith at all, from enjoying Lewis’ incredible world-building and compelling character arcs. Any saga of war and magic featuring Santa Claus, talking animals, witches, minotaurs, and werewolves deserves any serious fantasy fan’s consideration.

     
  • The cover of the book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

    Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

    While we know you’ve probably read it already, not including Lewis’ story of a young girl’s tumble down the rabbit hole on a list like this would be criminal. Lewis’ creativity was wide-ranging and eclectic, and characters like the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, and Alice herself have inspired generations of readers, from nineteenth century children to the hippies of the sixties. It is a classic for a reason.

     

     
  • The cover of the book Every Heart a Doorway

    Every Heart a Doorway

    Most portal fantasies focus on a character’s adventures in a world beyond their own. Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway takes a different route, sharing what it is like when an adventurer returns to their own world. Teenager Nancy Whitman once visited a magical realm, and her experiences there ruined her for life in the everyday world. Now she lives in a home for young people just like her: those who were once touched by magic, and only desire to experience it again.

     
  • The cover of the book The War of the Flowers

    The War of the Flowers

    Readers understand what it is like for a book to be swept away by a book, but we usually mean it metaphorically — not so in Tad Williams’ The War of the Flowers. Musician Theo Vilmos is initially skeptical when he discovers a journal written by a relative who claims to have visited the realm of Faerie, but those doubts vanish after he embarks on his own journey.

     
  • The cover of the book The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic

    The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic

    A Novel

    Not all doorways lead to worlds of light and splendor, and sometimes things aren’t what they seem. Overwhelmed graduate student Nora Fischer has plenty of motivation to leave her own world behind, so stumbling into a magical realm is initially a welcome development. She soon discovers that there’s a dark side to her new home, and her survival will depend on learning things they don’t teach in college.