From the moment I first tumbled down the rabbit hole, clambered through the wardrobe, and got my house swept away in a tornado, I fell in love with portal fantasy. Reading these books as a child, I was convinced: there had to be more to the world than what I could see. And it is in this sense of possibility that the true magic of portal fantasies exists. The excitement linked to that possibility of worlds you can reach from our own never fades, as evidenced by all the children and adults in the world who have walked through brick walls to reach Platform 9¾.
Now, years later, I have written my very own portal fantasy series. The twist is that rather than a portal from Earth to somewhere/sometime else, my heroine Leylah travels from the magical Land of the White Sun to Earth, only to discover a world spinning out of control. Portal fantasies are a unique challenge, as you balance several worlds in your hands. Therefore, I have picked my 5 favourite portal fantasy novels, written by masters in the genre:
(Warning: some spoilers ahead)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
The portal from which all other portals draw their inspiration turns out to be nothing more than a (rather spacious) rabbit hole. Which is exactly why it’s so delightful: a nondescript hole leads to a place called, rather magnificently, Wonderland. Once at the bottom, Alice is confronted by locked doors, and some oddly labelled snacks. As readers, we follow Alice through a particular doorway and into the dreamscape that is Wonderland, but I have always wondered where all those other doors could lead. Ultimately, Carroll’s description of Alice’s fall, that moment of fear and excitement as Alice plummets by furniture, and books, and other objects, makes this uniquely furnished portal unforgettable.
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
Another classic from childhood, C.S. Lewis’s series contains a multitude of portals, from a doorframe to a painting to the infamous wardrobe. The wardrobe is, of course, the best known of all his portals. When Lucy first pushes aside the fur coats and steps out into a wintery landscape, she comes across a strange sight: a lamppost, shining brightly, in the middle of a wood. Of course, the lamppost is quickly forgotten as Mr. Tumnus the faun walks by, but it remains a signpost of the way home, a marker of worlds overlapping.
The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
Containing one of the most brilliantly tangible portals in fantasy, Pullman’s second book in his trilogy examines how portals can work. Lyra and Will begin the novel having travelled through portals they found somewhat accidentally: a hole in the sky, an invisible window in mid-air. Their confusion and helplessness are common features of portal fantasy, as characters continuously stumble about through portals. But then Pullman turns the tables on conventions: Will discovers the eponymous subtle knife. An incredible artefact able to cut anything, including windows between worlds, the knife gives Will the ability to choose and create his own portals. And Pullman doesn’t stop there as he examines the violence inherent in the act of cutting into the fabric of a world and its consequences in The Amber Spyglass, the concluding volume of his trilogy.
The Summer Tree, by Guy Gavriel Kay
Taking a completely different approach from Pullman, Kay’s portal fantasy novel barely acknowledges the portal itself that allows his characters to travel to Fionavar. Rather than putting any focus on the portal itself, Kay is far more interested in exploring the land of Fionavar itself, which is reflected by his use of language: sparse and short when describing the transition from Toronto to Fionavar, it transforms into beautifully descriptive prose once the students are in Fionavar. Arguably, his language itself becomes a portal, or at least a reflection of the portal, moving from our rather boring world into the enchanted myth-world of Fionavar. And that makes it rather spectacular.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
While Gaiman’s Coraline is a brilliant if terrifying portal fantasy, Neverwhere takes the basic concept of a portal fantasy and transforms it into something new. As Richard Mayhew stops to help a young injured girl, he is involuntarily drawn into the world of London Below, the city below the city. What makes Gaiman’s portal so original is that the people of London Below are there, but Richard simply can’t see them, until he rescues the perfectly-named heroine Door. As her name implies, she can open doors between anywhere, and the novel suggests that she opens a door in Richard’s mind, allowing him to see what was previously invisible. In a novel that is also a biting social commentary, this portal is Richard’s mind can never be closed again, leaving him a ghost in his own world of London Above.
Rebecca Newton and The Last Oracle by Mario Routi is available now from Oak Tree Press. You can buy it in paperback for £7.99 at Amazon.co.uk. Read the latest book reviews in the new issue of SciFiNow.