Diving Into Sub-Genres: Portal Fantasy

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We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us will present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.

Portal family is probably the largest and most popular sub-genre in fantasy fiction. I know that second part is a pretty hefty claim, but even among the most picky of fantasy readers, those who hardly ever read the genre as a whole, there’s a decent chance they hold a special place for some portal fantasy novel or another. It’s unavoidable when some of the biggest titles in fantasy fiction fall under this subgenre; even more so when many of those titles (“Harry Potter,” “The Wizard of Oz”) are also children’s and middle grade fiction, works that many readers will enjoy as kids even if they go on as adults to read very little in the fantasy genre as a whole.

Portal fantasy is also a wide, sprawling sub-genre on its own. It’s definition is simple: it’s a story that involves characters travelling through a “portal” (wardrobe/train platform/tornado/etc.) from our real world into some magical, fantasy realm. Already you can see the huge potential and likely list off a good number of titles that would fall under this category. What’s more, a broad interpretation of this subgenre would just be characters travelling from world to world, none of which need include our real world. For example, the “His Dark Materials” trilogy utilizes both of these options. We have characters travelling from our world to new worlds, like Will in the second book, “The Subtle Knife.” But there are also several characters, like Lord Asriel, who never travel to “our world” at all, but only between different, unique worlds.

The definition of “portal” can also vary. Some would say there needs to be an actual passage way from one distinct world to another unique world; others would count the Daevabad trilogy as a portal fantasy, simply due to the hidden nature of the city itself, unseen and inaccessible by humanity. Portal fantasy is also one of the oldest subgenres of fantasy. Some of Shakespeare’s plays would likely count (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) and, of course, there is Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” Between all of these definitions, and the fact that portal fantasy is a popular subgenre in fantasy fiction for all ages (probably the most popular by far in children’s fantasy), there are a million options to choose from, but here are a few that I particularly enjoy and I think represent the subgenre well.

“The Chronicles of Narnia” by C. S. Lewis

This is probably one of the first books/series that comes to most people’s minds when they think of “portal fantasy.” Not only is it a supremely popular children’s series, but the portal itself holds much of its appeal simply by how ubiquitous it is: what child hasn’t crawled into a closet or wardrobe and wished there was a door way to another world to be found at the end? The titular wardrobe in the first book, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is the most well-known of the portals found in this story. But if you continue reading, you’ll also find children swept away through a painting and simply by the winds felt on a cliffside.

“Wayward Children” series by Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire has created a series that not only features portal fantasies as the primary premise of all of her books, but each book does a deep dive into the types of people who walk through these magical doors. The types of people who look for them, and those who don’t. And she paints a world that holds so many doorways to so many unique worlds that she’s even made a sort of flowchart to diagram the sorts of worlds her characters may come from and travel to. Where does each world fall on a scale of chaos or order? Good or evil? These novellas are all incredibly unique and highlight a lot of the appeal that the portal fantasy subgenre holds for the many readers who enjoy it and wish they, too, could find their door to another world.

“The Fionavar Tapestry” series by Guy Gavriel Kay

This is one of the first adult portal fantasy series that I remember reading as a teenager. Up to that point, for me, portal fantasy was something found in children’s and young adult fiction, but not so much in the stuffy works that made up adult fantasy. The story follows five men and women who find themselves pulled into a fantasy world where they each have important roles to play. And this is definitely adult portal fantasy all around, as Kay dives into some pretty dark themes throughout the series. I remember really enjoying it, but also being rather shocked as a teenage reader by certain scenes. It’s one of those fantasy series that has stuck with me throughout the years, but also one that I need to return to soon as I haven’t ever re-read it.

“The Invisible Library” by Genevieve Cogman

This eight book long series wrapped up recently, back in 2021 and was massively popular during its run. It’s a fairly standard portal fantasy, with its main character, Irene, travelling from realm to realm in her work for a Library that collects fiction from these various worlds. Throughout the series she gathers a group of friends around her and encounters all sorts of wild worlds, including time travel. These are really lovely books, all the more appealing for featuring a heroic librarian as their heroine!

“In Other Lands” by Sarah Rees Brennan

This is another fairly straight-forward portal fantasy, but its quirky take on not only the the magical world and the beings that populate it but on its protagonist make it stand out as a great, modern story. The word “deconstruction” has been used when describing this book’s take on its central trope, but it does so in an interesting and hilarious way, rather than the usual, more pretentious sort of deconstruction. The hero is also a young teenage boy who is just as snotty and irreverent as you’d expect from a boy of that age. And yet you can’t help rooting for him anyway!

“Shades of Magic” trilogy by V.E. Schwab

Lastly, I’m including one of my favorite portal fantasies of all time. This is also a nice mixture of the two definitions of portal fantasy in that one of our main characters travels in the traditional direction (from our world and into a magical one), but our other main character is from the magical world and travels not only to our world, but also to other, unique worlds beyond. This trilogy not only has unique worlds (varying Londons each with different levels of magic), but I really enjoyed the way the magic system and travel between these works worked. Fans of portal fantasies should definitely check this trilogy out if you haven’t already!

What portal fantasy books are your favorites? Let us know in the comments!

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