Today’s ponderable

I’d like to talk about portal fantasies. Or rather, I’d like you to talk about them.

By that term, I mean the stories where people from this world go into another, more fantastical world. Narnia, for example. Once upon a time, these seem to have been more popular; now, not so much. And if I had to guess, I’d say that’s at least in part because of the way a lot of them were transparent wish-fulfillment: Protagonist (who is an emotional stand-in for the author, though only in egregious cases a Mary Sue) goes to Magical Land where things are more colorful and interesting than in the real world. And maybe they stay there, maybe they don’t.

Talk to me about the portal fantasies you’ve read. Which ones stick in your mind? What was your response to them, both as a kid and now? Which ones did the wish-fulfillment thing extra transparently, and how so?

(Yes, I actually have a special interest in the bad examples of this genre. In fact, if you approach this entire question as an academic curiosity of the structural sort paired with a authorly eye toward writing a deconstruction — not a parody — of the tropes, you’ll be on the right track.)

Portal fantasies. Talk to me about ’em. Good, bad, ugly, laughably naive. What’s your take?

0 Responses to “Today’s ponderable”

  1. drydem

    Erfworld(on the Giant in the Playground site) does a very interesting portal fantasy humor comic.

    • Marie Brennan

      I didn’t get into that one, but I also tried to read it as it started up, which meant I couldn’t devour a block of it in a sitting; I might like it better now.

      • drydem

        it’s a hard one to get into. I never would have kept reading it if not for OotS’s vague update schedule, which kept me visiting on a regular basis.

        • Marie Brennan

          That was kind of where I was, too, and ended up deciding I didn’t care that much. (Though I still go back to look for new OotS.)

  2. j_cheney

    Martha Wells wrote a trilogy called “The Fall of Ile-Rien”, excellent books all of them. This would be what I would classify as a ‘good’ example because the world jumping wasn’t wish-fulfillment, it was part of a war.

    As for the bad and the ugly, yep, I’ve read them. I think it’s better not to name names. But I still have a copy of one because it’s incredibly funny read aloud–and the improbably-named heroine might as well have been named Mary Sue.

  3. mrissa

    ‘s Secret Country trilogy and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry. Love.

    I know there are bad, ugly, and laughably naive ones out there. But I try to dodge them just as I dodge bad high fantasy, and oh, I love the good ones.

    I have two volumes of one written myself (and trunked) and at least one more completely different one that occasionally nags at the back of my head.

    • janni

      The Secret Country books are among my all-time favorites.

      My main requirement is that the characters don’t forget everything when they return home–that always made me want to throw the book across the room, because what’s the point of the adventure if you don’t get to remember it?

      Tried to write one once, with mixed success that had more to do with my writing at the time than the genre–though it’s being a hard-sell genre right now makes me a little leerier of going back to it than it might be otherwise.

      • mrissa

        I call that a Death Of The Magic ending, and I hate them so much. I read The Whim of the Dragon between the cracks in my fingers because I had already met and liked when I could finally buy a copy, and I was so afraid she would do that to me, and it would actually be a person doing it to me instead of an abstract authorial construct. And then she stuck the landing, go Pamela.

      • dsgood

        By the time you finished writing it, the market might have changed.

        A couple of decades ago, Lawrence Block felt he had to explain to readers of his column on writing what tie-ins and novelizations had been — there was no longer any market for them. They’ve definitely come back.

        • janni

          Yeah, all trends come around … which also makes me think I must not feel passionate about the project to just write it anyway, which is reason enough to hold off, as well.

          Could change one day, of course …

      • Marie Brennan

        This isn’t something I’m intending to do right now, in part because of the reason you name. But the idea has always been sitting on about the fifth burner or so, and today I felt like poking at it.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, I’ve got one that’s been in the back of my head for a dog’s age, that (at least in part) always intended to be a deconstruction. But it needs to be done right, if I’m ever going to do it.

      Problem is, I try to dodge the bad ones, too, and I feel like I need a broader sense of how this trope works before I’ll know how I want to play with it. I mean, other than going through into another world, what is the general pattern of those stories? I can’t break it until I know that.

      • mrissa

        I think in the bad ones there’s the universe-version of the Great White Hope problem, which we see in Narnia a bit: that very often there is something special about people from another world (often children from another world) that they have to fix what is wrong with the world they’ve stumbled into.

        • Marie Brennan

          Which makes me think of the Thomas Covenant books. (And not in a good way. Though I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of them in a good way, come to think on’t.)

          • thespisgeoff

            I’ve re-read the first two Covenant trilogies several times, trying to figure out if I’ll like them this time. I never will. I’m down with anti-heroes, really I am. But I’m not down with whiny anti-heroes, and rape really doesn’t get to be excused away ever – or at least not just hand-woven.

            Plus, if you set up a “Wild Magic” outside the rules of the world you’ve created – well, it would help to have clear rules first, wouldn’t it?

          • Marie Brennan

            I’ve re-read the first two Covenant trilogies several times, trying to figure out if I’ll like them this time.

            Exactly what kind of masochist are you?

          • thespisgeoff

            I did the same thing with Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, which is another series I just cannot seem to stomach but that others love. I keep hoping for another LOTR experience – a book I hated on first read but that grew on me when I took my time with it.

          • Marie Brennan

            Okay, I suppose that makes sense.

            Have you ever talked to about the Williams? She and I had basically the same experience: liked the first book, okay with the second, by halfway through the third the only person I cared about anymore was Miriamele and the story wasn’t talking about her, and then when it finally got back to her I discovered I didn’t care about her anymore, either.

            And then the ending seemed very lame.

      • mrissa

        Oh, Joel Rosenberg did a series of them that fit the RPG reference below. Guardians of the Flame, I think is the series name.

        • mllelaurel

          Yes! Those were actually the main ones I was thinking of, though I was blanking on the title. It’s been years since I read them.

  4. xmurphyjacobsx

    Two pop to mind, neither in particular “good”. David Brin wrote “The Practice Effect” which was more or less an update with twists on Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (which also might count). Ursula Le Guin wrote one called “The Beginning Place” which had an ending I hated so much I threw the book. I swear, I think someone cut out the last chapter. I haven’t read them, but isn’t Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionnavar Tapestry basically this kind of fantasy?

    I rather like the idea of the portal fantasy, mostly because I like fish out of water stories. Beyond that, yeah, they can be just plain bad because they are SO easily perverted into writer masturbation fantasies (fun to write, and to perhaps share with those 3 friends who like that sort of thing but don’t write, but not suitable for public view).

    Beyond that, I don’t know that I’ve thought about them.

    Edit: Andre Norton — Here Abide Monsters. That was one I remember liking VERY much, but I haven’t read it in so long that I can’t recall why.

    • Marie Brennan

      Makes me wonder if you could connect portal fantasies in certain ways to Cinderella-ish fantasies — the kinds of stories where a lower-class character gets swept up into high society for some contrived reason.

      But to do stories of one culture to an entirely foreign one, and to do it entirely within a secondary world, you’d have to build two convincing cultures and get the reader to identify with one of them as the baseline, which is hard.

      • xmurphyjacobsx

        You will NOT plant a plotseed into my head. I’m already ignoring 6 stories right now — I don’t have TIME to ignore another!

        That said, if you were doing the whole epic fantasy, yeah, I could see the two culture thing. Might be best, though, as a total immersion, no big history; just a lot of unfolding and assumption. Readers are very accepting if you really make the ‘now’ of the character very velcro-hooky (don’t you LOVE my technical terminology?)

        Bah! No! Stop thinking stories! (Pardon, must go have a talk with my muse in the back).

        • Marie Brennan

          (Pardon, must go have a talk with my muse in the back).

          Why is there a crowbar in your hand?

          Readers are very accepting if you really make the ‘now’ of the character very velcro-hooky (don’t you LOVE my technical terminology?)

          I do, actually. <g>

          • xmurphyjacobsx


            I’m in the unenviable position currently of having too many WIP going, and absolutely no ability to make myself write on any of them. Stories churn in my head, but want nothing to do with paper at all. It’s not even ‘writer’s block’. It’s more like “writer’s rather fold laundry than write”.

            Yeah, crowbar.

            I have books and books of proper literary terms. I can’t remember any of them when I’m talking story, so I have to make schtuff up.

          • akirlu

            If you ever come up with a working solution to the too many stories in your head problem, I’d love to know about it…

          • Marie Brennan

            So far as I’m aware, the only solution anybody has found is to make yourself pick one, work on it until it’s done, and then pick another.

            It helps a little if you make a good list of all the ideas, and then file it away somewhere for looking at after you’ve finished one.

          • akirlu

            Okay, well, that’s what I’m doing already, so I guess the only fix is more Butt in Chair time. I had to give up on an otherwise very useful online writing group because at the time, being bombarded with story cues that were interesting just meant I had an ever greater backlog of works in progress distracting me from finishing any given existing one. I need fewer hobbies.

  5. mllelaurel

    I remember a specific subgenre of those: roleplayers get sucked into their own game. Sometimes the GM was complicit, and sometimes he/she wasn’t. I don’t know if the idea started with the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, but judging by the dates on some of these books, it really took off in the eighties.

    From what I recall it was less about wish fulfillment and more about the characters thinking that’s what it would be and having that belief bite them in the ass because the world they were in was darker than they bargained for.

    I’m sure some were wish fulfillment. They’re just not the ones that come to mind now.

  6. difrancis

    I always like the Rosemary Edgehill 12 treasures books, but more for the academic nerdi-ism than the portal stuff. I do like Wen Spencer’s Tinker series–I think it does the portal thing well. And while I liked the Andre Norton Witch World stuff, I did not like the crossover spill of worlds or the portal part–I like the witch world part of the books. I also like the Amber series, which is a version of the portal story.

    It seems in the ones that I like, that there was a reason for the portal or that there was story that dealt with the portal in a way that it just wasn’t the convenient macguffin that allows a passage but other than that has no life ramifications for anybody.

    • Marie Brennan

      It seems in the ones that I like, that there was a reason for the portal or that there was story that dealt with the portal in a way that it just wasn’t the convenient macguffin that allows a passage but other than that has no life ramifications for anybody.

      That’s a good point. And, in point of fact, one of the handwavium bits from when I was twelve that I’ve never satisfactorily renovated. (This idea’s been with me a long time, and needs a lot of work.)

    • snickelish

      It seems in the ones that I like, that there was a reason for the portal or that there was story that dealt with the portal in a way that it just wasn’t the convenient macguffin that allows a passage but other than that has no life ramifications for anybody.

      Yes! This.

    • strangerian

      The Twelve Treasures books are some of the most memorable fantasy I’ve read, mainly for the vivid language and characters. Large parts of the story take place on each side of the portal, with the respective fish-out-of-water qualities going both ways. This seems unusual to me for the genre (though I may not have read enough samples to judge). The Elfland is a lot more “warts and all” than most examples, and the familiar and fantastic bump up against each other a lot, which gives the storyline a lot of energy.

      Edgehill’s done a more conventional portal story in The Warslayer, which reads like a Xena adventure gone portal, and deflects the Mary Sue concept onto an action-genre actress catapulted into a Real Thing version of swords’n’sorcery. The same device works in some fanfic I’ve seen, where the here-and-now character visiting a real space opera/historic setting/etc, is an actor (or fervent fan) accustomed to seeing the nuts-and-bolts of a stage set instead of spaceship/castle/alien planet for real.

  7. akirlu

    The recent example, sort of, is Charlie Stross’ Merchant Princes series — though it isn’t particularly fantasy, apart from the device that achieves the transport between Earth and the various parallel Earths (and back again). It definitely isn’t wish fulfillment — the main thrust of the series is exploring how economic development is affected by the contact between the (at last check) three parallel worlds.

    Zelazny’s Amber books might be classed as portal fantasy, of a sort. And I’m sure that Andre Norton had at least one SF-ish portal fantasy, wherein the magic McGuffin is the Siege Perilous, which transports anyone sitting in it to the world they properly belong to. Can’t remember the name of the book, though.

    Are Jasper Forde’s literary detective mysteries portal fantasies? It seems like being able to literally step into the pages of fiction is a particular subgenre of portal fiction, another example of which, in its way, is Heinlein’s Number of the Beast.

    • Marie Brennan

      Sadly, I don’t love economics and business enough to really warm to the Merchant Princes, though I think they’re good books.

      You’re probably right about Fforde, as a particular sub-type. Which then raises the fascinating possibility that those books are close cousins to that great horror of fanfiction, the story in which a person from our world gets to go run around in the narrative of Harry Potter or wherever . . . .

      • akirlu

        I wasn’t necessarily recommending the Merchant Princes books, so much as holding them up as an example of recent portal fantasies that seem to sell well. (Perhaps there’s a resurgence on the way.) Myself, I’ve had to give up on the series because Charlie’s persistence in putting UK idiom in the mouths of American characters just drives me batshit crazy. I can’t NOT be bothered by it.

        Regarding Fforde’s proximity to Fanfic – I think there’s a spectrum there, rather than a hard line. It’s not as if there isn’t a literary tradition of ‘legit’ fiction interacting with previous works. I’m actually quite fond of the Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp collection, The Compleat Enchanter, in which our academic protagonists wind up in the worlds of, among others, Norse mythology, and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, by the charming plot device of altering their foundational premises using symbolic logic. And a bit earlier, you get John Myers Myers Silverlock, whose hero winds up dumped in the ‘Commonwealth of Letters’ and ends up encountering Simply Everybody, from the Green Knight to the Mad Hatter. More recently you have Charlie Stross doing a story set in the world of Orwell’s 1984, twenty years down the line, exploring the problems of competent computing for the millennium in a totalitarian state. Tell me that isn’t fanfic. Or, for that matter, his stories set in a world where H.P. Lovecraft’s various horrors are real and sometimes wander through to our world if not stopped by the bureaucratic derring-don’t of The Laundry.

        I’m not much into fanfic, myself, but I think there’s a lot of legitimate writerly learning going on in that microcosm, and the line, if there is one, between fanfic and Legitimate Literature, may be blurry at best, and partly dependent on whose ox is being gored.

        • dr_whom

          The interesting thing about Merchant Princes is that not only is it not a “wish-fulfillment” portal fantasy, but at least in its setup it’s a pretty severe deconstruction of the bog-standard wish-fulfillment changeling/portal fantasy. Consider: it’s about a young woman from our world who suddenly discovers that her real parents are powerful nobles from a medieval-type world with apparent magical abilities and she is betrothed to a prince; it doesn’t get more standard changeling-fantasy than that. But then it turns out that a parallel world with medieval-level technology and society is a squalid hellhole where a noble family is basically an organized crime gang and her only value to them is her ability to create a political alliance by marrying who they want her to marry and producing heirs. So it’s not so much avoiding the standard wish-fulfillment tropes but actively subverting them.

          Then it all turns into economic SF.

          • akirlu

            Hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re right. Pity I didn’t care about the characters enough to keep on, but Stross demonstrated early that he didn’t mind treating major characters as disposable without lasting emotional consequences. Boyfriend’s dead then? Oh, well, that’s sad, let’s get on with reforming the economic system of World 3.

        • Marie Brennan

          Myself, I’ve had to give up on the series because Charlie’s persistence in putting UK idiom in the mouths of American characters just drives me batshit crazy.

          Sorry to hear that — all the more so because I’m fairly certain he makes a real effort to avoid doing just that.

          Regarding Fforde’s proximity to Fanfic – I think there’s a spectrum there, rather than a hard line.

          Absolutely. But it’s fun to explode the heads of people who really want to believe fanfic bears no relationship to Real Fiction. πŸ™‚

          • akirlu

            Sorry to hear that — all the more so because I’m fairly certain he makes a real effort to avoid doing just that.

            I know he tries. He just has a tin ear for dialog, and it’s particularly bad when it comes to distinguishing characters/regionalities/nationalities. I had offered to help, but made the mistake of starting off catching up on the series reading mss that were already copyedited and approved and no longer fixable. Open the first of these, and on the first page, in the first paragraph, in the very first ever-loving sentence he’s got an American woman using nail varnish. I plowed on for a while, but the errors just kept piling up and I just didn’t have the heart to go on, knowing that there was no way to fix them.

        • mindstalk

          How was Shakespeare not writing fanfic of various old stories we’ve forgotten because he did it better?

          Anything Arthurian is arguably fanfic. Also Chistopher Moore’s _Lamb_. _Journey to the West_. Possibly the Aeneid.

          • akirlu

            Hmmm. I’m not sure what Shakespeare did was really what I would call fanfic. After all, it was the plots he generally borrowed from earlier sources, rather than the full-blown characters and world. I can’t remember how many times he recycled Pyramus and Thisbe.

            For using extant characters borrowed to tell new stories, I think your better bet would be Comedia del Arte, and possibly Mystery Plays as well.

  8. dsgood

    Are there stories in which ours is the wish-fulfillment world for characters from elsewhere?

    • Marie Brennan

      The proximate cause for my brain chewing on this was ‘ review of ‘ Once a Princess, which begins with secondary-world characters having taken refuge in ours. I can’t think of others at the moment, though.

      • moonandserpent

        Peter David’s Knight Life and One Knight Only sort of qualifies, with King Arthur being rescued from misty Avalon and being brought to NYC. Where he embarks on a political career of course.

        I also seem to recall an element of that when the various characters from The Magic Kingdom of Landover finally make their way out of Landover and into Vegas, at some point.

    • mindstalk

      Merchant Princes has a bit of that: women from a feudal America encountering the modern USA. And all the tech and wealth they get from us, since it’s a two-way portal world. MP also handles languages naturally: the Clan has learned English, and Miriam has to learn other languages the hard way… though I think the third world speaks English, it being a parallel Earth.

      Other points:
      Time travel stories can be a form of portal story, e.g. Connecticut Yankee or Lest Darkness Fall. This may provide more male characters than the straight portal fantasies. Also something like Stasheff’s Warlock books. Julian May’s Pliocene Saga is a multi-character time travel portal story.

      Japan has some number of portal stories: Twelve Kingdoms novel and anime (features: political not romantic, divine magic solves the language problem, limited two-way contact); Fushigi Yugi, Escaflowne, Mahou Shoujoutai (Magical Girl Squad Alice, brought over as Tweeny Witches *cries*). Female-centric, though in 12K Taiki is a male who’s crossed and back, and the anime brings a male and female companion for Youko that she didn’t have in the novel. Plus two very important other characters are males from Japan… though most of these are actually 12K natives who got blown to Japan as fetuses.

      12K also deconstructs standard portal fantasy a bit: Youko has a rough time of it; Suzu is an actual Japanese girl who has an even rougher time of it (not being a ruler, she doesn’t get the magical language facility); the anime companions include a girl who takes the whole fantasy portal scenario to heart… but *isn’t* the chosen one.

      Other portals: Rick Cook’s Wizardry Compiled books (male), and yeah, vaguely remembered books where people got sucked into a D&D world, with dice rolling across the sky and real hexes. Oh, and the D&D cartoon.

  9. janni

    It seems I’ve seen more small press than large press portal fantasies the past few years, though of course titles are now eluding me … but I seem to recall that being true the year I was on the Norton jury, too.

    • Marie Brennan

      They might be making a comeback. Harry Potter’s all but a portal fantasy, imho, given the way the wizarding world gets divided off.

  10. snickelish

    I’m rather fond of Stephen Lawhead’s Song of Albion Celtic trilogy, partly because I love that the protag has to actually learn the language. It seems to me that a lot of portal fantasies (nice phrase!) gloss over all the difficulties inherent in getting dropped into a completely different world. I mean, think about how much trouble I’d have if I suddenly found myself in rural China – food, hygiene, appropriate clothing and manners… Most portal travelers just have too easy.

    OTOH, sometimes there’s a reason given for why the cultures are as close as they are, such as in Narnia (in which the answer seems to be “God did it,” which I’m fine with given the context).

    • Marie Brennan

      The phrase is not original to me.

      You’re right about the easiness of the transition — it seems to me that in a lot of cases (she said vaguely, not actually coming up with examples at the moment) the protagonist’s difficulties are played romantically rather than realistically. Oh, it’s so charming she made that mistake, or lookit how enlightened she is with her hand-washing or feminism compared to those around her, or she does something wrong that results in a meet-cute with her love interest.

      (My brain has apparently decided these protagonists are all female? I blame Mary Sue. Though I seem to remember reading some books a dog’s age ago that had a male character go through a portal. Maybe something by Salvatore?)

      • akirlu

        It’s funny that I can’t remember a single portal fantasy that had only a female protagonist. Lots of them have only male protagonists, though. In the mid-80s there was Leo Frankowski’s Crosstime Engineer series, which, again, didn’t have much fantasy to it, aside from the initial time transport, and the notion that one might plausibly grow roses from seed. Another of my old favorites, Gordon Dickson’s The Dragon and the George also has a male protagonist. I honestly can’t remember the gender of the protagonist of Larry Niven’s various time travel fantasies collected in The Flight of the Horse, but knowing Larry, I’d bet male.

        • Marie Brennan

          Oz leaps to mind.

          I can think of more male protagonists now, but it really might be the Mary Sue fanfic thing that makes me default to female in my head.

          • brigidsblest

            Another portal fantasy series with a male protag from the 80s is Christopher Stasheff’s ‘Her Majesty’s Wizard’ series, and another still matching that criterion are the Spellsinger books by Alan Dean Foster.

            I love portal fantasies, myself, and snap up ones I’ve overlooked whenever I find them. I think it rather sad that they aren’t around much any more (although that sorrow may have its biased roots in the fact that the first serious, non-trunk novel I wrote was a portal fantasy).

  11. carbonel

    Portal fantasies (nice term) have always a been favorite type of story for me. I think it’s the familiar character with the unfamiliar world that appeals, or something.

    Barbara Hambly’s Time of the Dark trilogy was one. I’m not sure what was wrong with it, but it never really jelled for me.

    I loved Joy Chant’s Red Moon and Black Mountain.

    I think the first one I ever read was Andre Norton’s Gray Magic aka Steel Magic. That one didn’t hold up terribly well on rereading, but I loved it when I first read it at age eight or nine.

    • Marie Brennan

      I should edit the post to say the phrase isn’t mine, so I don’t keep re-typing it. πŸ™‚

      I think what appeals with these books is the way they allow you to imagine how you would react in those circumstances. Which is a trait they share with certain kinds of urban fantasy, or zombie apocalypses.

      What didn’t hold up well for you with the Norton? General craft stuff like plot, or something specific to the portal aspect?

      • carbonel

        What didn’t hold up well for you with the Norton? General craft stuff like plot, or something specific to the portal aspect?

        Just the fact that it didn’t have any depth. It was just the thing for a young reader, but the setting was a mishmash of Arthuriana and Faerie.

        says that when she started writing the Secret Country books, her goal was to write something that would stand up to later rereading by an older reader. That’s what was missing in the Norton book.

        Oh, another book that I remember fondly is Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer, which involved time travel rather than fantasy as the portal device.

        Actually, I have a whole bunch of time travel portal books, one of the most haunting of which is A Chance Child by Jill Paton Walsh. There it’s the “other” character that’s fallen out of his time into modern times rather than the other way around.

        And there’s The Time Tunnel by Caroline D. Emerson, which is another Scholastic book I was fond of and still have a copy of. In that one, a pair of children land in New Amsterdam, just before it’s handed over to the British.

        And there’s a novel that I’ve been wracking my brains trying to remember. It went back and forth between now and the Edwardian period (IIRC), and the main character inhabited the body of a girl who was being taken over somehow by her evil brother. That one was brought back into print by (again, IIRC) Beth Meacham; I remember thanking her for it and her regretting that it was such a financial flop. There was also some confusion and disappointment for me with that author, because the governess in the book, who was an important subsidiary character, was named something like Grizel, and when I came across a book with a title close to Grizel’s Story, I kept waiting for the stories to connect. But they never did, and I assume it was just a coincidence of name. I checked my shelves over, and can’t remember the name of the book, and now it’s bugging me.

        Another one that doesn’t work, IMO, is Will Shetterly’s The Tangled Lands. That one is a sequel of sorts to his previous book Cats Have No Lord, but the fantasy land in CHNL is turned into a gaming/virtual reality world in TTL, to the detriment of both.

        • Marie Brennan

          Time travel is portal-ish, true. Since you’re automatically talking about crossing between settings that are very distinct from one another.

    • strangerian

      Hambly’s Silent Tower series is perhaps more successful in using a portal, though the storyline meanders all over the place while it’s having fun. (I love the books, but now and then I wonder what they were supposed to be about, other than some kinds of magic use compared to computer programming. And Renaissance-style politics, complete with judicial torture. And an SFnal intrusion from a third world. And stuff.) Time of the Dark I recall as a more coherent story in itself, with the portal merely the way into a fantasy world in the first chapter, and the characters adapting to the new social environment.

  12. tiamat360

    I’ve always thought of the first Harry Potter book as a “portal fantasy.”

    • Marie Brennan

      I think the whole series is mostly a portal-style setup, though it does start bringing the two worlds closer together later on.

  13. la_marquise_de_

    Hello, I’m Kari (Sperring), new on your f’list: fan and academic.
    When I was 8 or 9 I came across a book called The Unicorn Window by Lynette Muir, a British writer who published only a handful of books, for all children. It was Elidor without the hopelessness; Joan Aiken with extra Mark-and-Harriet. The story follows a brother and sister who break a window in a relative’s house and find themselves trapped in an alternate world where they must recapture the unicorn they themselves have set free. It charmed me completely, and still does, even though I am now way too old for it. It’s my favourite portal fantasy, I think — the only other one that had the same impact on me at that sort of age as The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
    And yet I don’t really care for many adult portal fantasies. They never ring true, somehow: their protagonists annoy me and seem always to be somehow patronising the worlds they arrive in. I’m not comfortable in worlds which can only survive through the intervention of magical outsiders. It’s too colonial, perhaps even too American for me (I’m British — technically mostly Welsh, indeed). The imported character — meant to be my eyes on this new world — becomes a barrier I resent. Adults, somehow, don’t fit in the Otherworld (and that I learnt from C S Lewis, from Uncle Andrew’s discomfort in the World Between the Worlds).
    edited for typos.

    • snickelish

      I think I agree with your YA/adult divide – a lot of things that bother me in ‘adult’ portal fantasies are just part of the game in children’s versions. I still like the children’s fantasy worlds to be consistent and make sense and all those things, but I’ll accept conveniences there if there hand-waved prettily enough that I won’t accept in adult fantasies.

    • Marie Brennan

      I hear you about the colonial (or even American) overtones. As someone else said in this comment thread, it kind of smacks of the Great White Hope.

      Of course, not all portal stories are about the outsider protagonist being necessary to save the world. It does seem to be a common reason/justification for the crossing, though.

      • la_marquise_de_

        Yes: my example of good practice would be Barbara Hambly, whose displaced protagonists learn and change but don’t save. Whereas G G Kay alternately makes me howl with laughter or spit (I’m a Celticist) and as for Thomas Covenant…

  14. sartorias

    I loved them when I was a kid–as long as the memory of the experience wasn’t taken away on the kids’ return. But by age nine or so, I hated the return. I wanted the kids to stay.

    I also started to hate the “You are the only hope of this world” stories.

    Finally I realized what I liked was comparisons of cultures.

    I loved Narnia as a kid, and there was an odd one called A Walk Out of the World. I think the last one I really loved was Joy Chant’s, which came out when I was nineteen.

    • snickelish

      and there was an odd one called A Walk Out of the World.

      Yeah, I remember that one! An immortal family of women with silver hair, and so on.

    • j_cheney

      I also started to hate the “You are the only hope of this world” stories.

      Oh, blargh! I hate that. It’s become one of my pet peeves….

    • Marie Brennan

      But by age nine or so, I hated the return. I wanted the kids to stay.

      This is interesting to me, because one of the notions I’m toying with is the possibility that the portal’s a one-way trip: you can’t go home again.

      I also started to hate the “You are the only hope of this world” stories.

      Ditto, with a cherry on top. Those two things don’t have to be yoked together, but they often are.

      Finally I realized what I liked was comparisons of cultures.

      Me, too.

      • mindstalk

        Twelve Kingdoms was mostly a one-way trip. Even after being given immortality and the offer of emperorship, Youko wanted to go back to her life in Japan. Then she got told the people would suffer without her, collateral damage meant the magical unicorn she was talking too would refuse to take her back, she’d have to order her own unicorn to inflict Mega Storm Damage on both worlds in sending her back, and she’d die in a year anyway if she wasn’t a good king. So mostly one-way.

        Can’t go back or doesn’t go back seems common enough in my list.

        • Marie Brennan

          That . . . is a powerful argument for not going back.

          Doesn’t go back strikes me as reasonably common; can’t go back, less so.

          • mindstalk

            Funny thing is, magical unicorns are spirit creatures tasked with finding the divinely appointed king, so can cross worlds without problems, and the one she’s talking to has made regular trips back to Japan for the last 500 years. He thinks democracy would be better than their system.

            Can’t go back at all seems common in time travel. Yankee, Cross-Time Engineer (iffy, someone else had time travel), Lest Darkness Fall, Island in the Sea of Time, Pebble in the Sky (title? Asimov). Fantasy… yeah, it tends to be more difficult, or something quested for, than impossible/never.

  15. kleenestar

    Read recently (in the last few years):

    Mirror of her Dreams series by Donaldson – less eye-pokey than Covenant by a long shot, and actually does some deconstructing of its own so it might be useful to you. Very “So, we called for a hero from another world and we got … you???”

    The Magicians by Lev Grossman – I don’t think it’s out yet but I have an ARC I can send you if you need it. (Once it comes out, I think portal fantasy is about to hit the mainstream again in a big way.) The premise is basically, “What if some really awful, shitty people were the ones who got to do the portal fantasy?” Though what squicked me is that the author doesn’t seem to realize that his characters are generally terrible human beings.

    War of the Flowers by Tad Williams – Of the “Whoa, I’m a lame slacker dude in the real world, but my guitar playing / artistic dreams / misogyny make me AWESOME IN FANTASY LAND” sub-genre, but redeemed by a completely awesome take on the Other World (and by Williams’ general awesomeness – the genre lameness really isn’t his fault).

    Wonderful portal stuff in His Dark Materials, but you can’t really go wrong with Pullman as far as I’m concerned so I might be biased. πŸ™‚

    And of course there’s the de Lint-influenced crowd (UnLunDun, Neverwhere) which mostly appeal to me because of how they reimagine our mundane world as a magical place.

    Obsessed with as a kid:

    Apprentice Adept series by Piers Anthony – A guy from a sci-fi culture ends up in a fantasy world where magic works, and ends up traveling back and forth often enough to earn himself some serious frequent flier miles.

    (Plus some of the other stuff people have already mentioned – like Narnia which I freaking LOVED. I spent a lot of time rummaging in other people’s closets, just in case.)

    If you’re really looking for bad portal stuff, you might want to check out the romance aisle. I couldn’t name names, because I mostly skim them in the bookstore, but there’s definitely a fair few that do the “I’m in a magic land and EVERYONE LOVES ME” thing. Or also the past.


    You should email Ben Lehman about Land of a Thousand Kings, as I think he did fairly extensive research into this genre when he wrote the game.

    I know there are more, but I’ll post as I think of them.

  16. snickelish

    It occurs to me that it might be an interesting exercise to compare “one of us visits another world” stories with “one of them visits our world” stories. The one that comes immediately to mind is Alexander Key’s children’s novel, The Forgotten Door. The boy who stumbles here ends up spreading peace and love to us fractious Earthlings – a contrast with us visiting other worlds and taking them hygiene.

    • mindstalk

      Day the Earth Stood Still. Stranger in a Strange Land.

    • carbonel

      I loved that book. It was the first SF book I have any memory of, and I think I imprinted on it. Everyone else remembers Alexander Key for Escape to Witch Mountain (which I also liked), but it’s TFD that stuck with me.

    • Marie Brennan

      It occurs to me that it might be an interesting exercise to compare “one of us visits another world” stories with “one of them visits our world” stories.

      What I notice in that is your choice of phrasing: one of them. I can think of stories about otherworldly creatures in our world (starting with most urban faerie fantasy) — but how often is it written from the perspective of that otherworldly outsider? Sometimes, but not often. I’m more accustomed to seeing those intruders from a this-world perspective.

      • mindstalk

        Iain Banks, “The State of the Art”. Clarke’s _Imperial Earth_? Not sure, and that one was from human culture, though not Earth.

        • Marie Brennan

          But is that more commonly an SF thing? Science fiction has its culture-collision tropes, too, but I’m thinking specifically of fantasy.

      • snickelish

        Very true. I’m now wracking my brain, trying to think of an example from the other visitor’s perspective… I think the danger there would be the temptation to describe everyday things here in bizarre terms, just so the reader could say, “Oh, she’s really talking about McDonalds!” and then be amused at the little foreigner who doesn’t understand.

        Er, which is not to say I’d worry about you doing this. But I’ve seen a fair number of short stories, mostly SF rather than fantasy, that take this approach (although sometimes the distance is time rather than space – a future culture looking back and being amused by the 20th century), and if there isn’t something else going on, too, it’s just tedious. I’d imagine it’d be a huge help if the author already has the visitor’s home culture and world firmly developed, so that the character has a basis as rich and complex as ours to compare everything to.

        • Marie Brennan

          It can be a cute trope for humour, but yeah, it’s hard to take it past the simple giggles and into something more substantial.

    • lindenfoxcub

      In Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials Trilogy,” Lyra travels to our world. I’m in the middle of reading those though.

  17. deepstarrysky

    Portal science-fiction

    I think Alan E. Nourse’s “The Universe Between” could be called portal science fiction. It has a child traveling back and forth between worlds, but none of the wish-fulfillment I associate even with good portal fantasy. It also has our world be the “other” world, as someone asked about in comments.

    • Marie Brennan

      Re: Portal science-fiction

      So it shows our world from the perspective of the outsider?

      • deepstarrysky

        Re: Portal science-fiction

        It does, but only briefly. Mostly our world is at a “dimensional twist” from the originating world, so it looks impossibly disjointed and non-Euclidean, thus threatening the sanity of visitors. That could be the author’s commentary, I suppose.

        I’m tossing it in to your discussion as a contrast around wish-fulfillment, because the originating world thinks that the portal(s) will solve all their problems, and they don’t. Also, the child’s family knows he is traveling back and forth, which is unusual.

        Adults being aware reminds me of the Green Knowe books, but I think that is drifting even farther from your specific request.

        Thanks for starting a fascinating discussion!

  18. scottakennedy

    I think portal books start for me Frank L. Baum and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’ve actually never read the Oz books and so can’t comment on them.

    But as for Burroughs: In the Mars Series, John Carter is mysteriously transported to Mars.
    The Pellucidar and Caspak books utilize machines as the portal mechanism (a drill, a sub, a plane), and I can’t at the moment recall the portal device used for the Carson of Venus books. I read most of these books when I was thirteen. Without the benefit of a reread to refresh their strengths and weaknesses, I would guess (after 30 some years) their strength to be the swashbuckling adventure and the worldbuilding in Mars and Caspak especially, and their weakness to be that the hero becomes tanned, muscled, and beloved of princesses every time! But when you’re a 13-year old boy, that was pretty much the book I wanted to read. I was a painfully shy adolescent, and I think portal books offer a world that demands engagement by the protoganist. Hence, I could fulfill the wish of engagement and competence in dealing with the world even as I escaped from the real world and spoke to no one. I also imagine I would now see a great deal of white male privilege embedded within the Burroughs books as well.

    H.G. Well’s The Time Machine feels more to me like a portal book than a time travel one.

    When I read Gene Wolfe’s The Knight and The Wizard, it felt to me like he was taking an almost Burroughs-like portal device and then turning the wish-fulfillment into a series of moral quandaries, wherein the hero’s successes trouble even as they comfort or titillate. Those books sort of lodged in my like a burr that meditates upon Good and Evil.

    Perhaps such devices lend themselves naturally to religious allegory, as Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time books comes to mind as a well, although I read that as an adult (as a kid I couldn’t finish it). As an adult the religion was just too heavy handed for me as well. Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fall into this category as well, especially for the main character of A Subtle Knife. Though by the end of the third book, I found the need to create a atheist-allegory just as distracting as a religious one would have been.

    The other series mentioned also come to mind (Narnia, Amber, Covenant, Fionavar).

    I think the essential quality of portal books is simply escape, which is why books wherein the escape is killed or the real world found to be better are so deeply unsatisfying. If I wanted to know how great the real world is, I wouldn’t be reading a portal book to begin with.

    I assume we’re excluding urban fantasy such as Neverwhere, wherein the two worlds sometimes overlap. Otherwise such recent books as The Raw Shark Texts could be classed as portal deconstruction, wherein the portal is simply a manifestation of mental illness.

    • mindstalk

      John Carter makes me think of the Gor books. :p

      Lewis Carroll.

      Sandman’s “A Game of You” was portally, with explicit pokes at princess fantasies.

    • Marie Brennan

      I think portal books offer a world that demands engagement by the protoganist.

      That’s an interesting thought, and one I’ll chew on more.

      I think the essential quality of portal books is simply escape, which is why books wherein the escape is killed or the real world found to be better are so deeply unsatisfying. If I wanted to know how great the real world is, I wouldn’t be reading a portal book to begin with.

      Hmmm. On the one hand, I see your point; on the other hand, I’m not sure that has to be true.

      Otherwise such recent books as The Raw Shark Texts could be classed as portal deconstruction, wherein the portal is simply a manifestation of mental illness.

      I hate, with burning comets of hatred, stories that reduce their fantasy component to insanity or mere symbolism.

      • scottakennedy

        Me as well, and I rather hated The Raw Shark Texts after expecting to like it. I suppose he leaves it a bit ambiguous, but insanity was frankly the only justification I could come up with for the incoherant world-building, Mary-Sue female companion, and the book’s quite literal plagiarizing of the final third of Jaws.

  19. oddsboy


    *reads further*

    Ohhhhhhhh, fantasies about magical transportation. Y’see, an here I thought you were soliciting for fan fic with doors or less seemly things…


  20. moonandserpent

    One notorious example that I haven’t seen reference to on here is Joel Rosenberg’s Guardians of the Flame series which is a classic of the D&D players go to a fantasy world, type. It’s also interesting in that it’s grim-n-gritty wish fulfillment. You get the sense that even though the characters are going through hell, that Rosenberg still really wishes this would have happened to his D&D game.

    Also Rick Cook’s The Wiz Biz where a computer programmer ends up in a fantasy world only to learn that magic there is a LOT like C++. It’s played mostly for laughs and wins points for what happens when said programmer brings through his hardcore SCA buddies for help… only for the SCAdian weaponmasters to all get soundly trounced by the real weapons trainers of that world.

    TV-wise, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention (the original) Life on Mars. LoM was about a modern cop who ended up taken to a 1970’s past that may or may not have been a secondary world, the past, or a delusion. Notable (aside for being awesome) for having the process of the character trying to decide if it was wish-fulfillment or not.

    • Marie Brennan

      Somebody mentioned Rosenberg upthread, but this has grown like kudzu and I can’t even catch up with replies, let spare the time to search it out. πŸ™‚

  21. akashiver

    Katz’s The Third Magic was an interesting one, I remember. The Publisher’s Weekly description spoils an unnecessary amount of the plot – I seem to recall being a decent way into the book before I realized that the alien portal world was Arthurian, and much, much further before I realized the degree to which Katz was inverting the typical Mary Sue paradigm.
    The line “Poor Mordred. It’s not really your fault either, is it?” (or words to that effect) still strikes me as a brilliantly chilling next-to-concluding sentence.

    But bad wish fulfillment fantasies? I can’t recall that many of them, to be honest. I think I just closed a lot of books that bored me.

  22. lindenfoxcub

    Hi new to your f’list, but loved Kingspeaker, on BCS.

    I haven’t expanded all the threads, but I don’t think anyone has mention Michael Ende’s “The Neverending Story” which, I think is the only portal story I’ve really liked apart from Narnia. But I think that’s because there was purpose beyond wish fulfillment for bringing the MC to Fantasia, and also beyond saving fantasia. When he goes, he’s already saved it; he’s there to develop himself as a person.

    I didn’t like The Fionavar Tapestry, BTW, since so many people have lauded it already. I read it wondering why the portal element was there at all, seeing in it something that I had got over doing early on in my writing development. (This aside from the stylistic quirks that annoyed me.)

    But that’s where I see the difference between good and bad portal stories; the transportation to another world needs to be intrinsic to the story. The Fionavar tapestry could have been written without the portal element; the Neverending Story couldn’t. I don’t think the Narnia ones could either, since the first one had such a dependency on the fact that there were no humans in narnia, and the last one expands to the infinite Narnias beyond the door.

    • Marie Brennan

      Glad you liked “Kingspeaker”!

      I’d forgotten to think of The Neverending Story in this category, but you’re right. And you make an interesting point about the purpose in it.

  23. kendokamel

    Not that anyone will get to this comment, now that there are over 90 of them above me – but I read this YA series when I was a YA, that focused around this computer-whiz girl who somehow (through the magic of programming and a Nintendo Duck-Hunt gun) manages to turn her computer (and its green monochrome monitor) into a time machine that could send her (or her friends) back in time for two days, and only be gone from the present for two minutes.

    They visited the Antebellum American South, Woodstock (and to give you an idea of how dated the books were, one of the main characters’ friends was born AT Woodstock, so if those books were floating around the YA shelves today, the kids would be trying to figure out how a 40-year-old was in high school), 1930s Hollywood, and other Exciting Places in Time.

    They did things that actually changed history (but only in GOOD and minor ways, of COURSE), and I never really thought about the implications until my wee little geekitude had matured into a more sophisticated one.

    Overall, though, the series was everything a good YA girl series ought to be – smart, fun, adventurous, and depicting female characters who could be described by the same adjectives.

    • Marie Brennan

      Actually, people have been coming back and poking at this thread a surprising amount. So you never know.

      I wonder what series that was?

      • kendokamel

        I can’t for the life of me remember – I’m about to hit the Great Google Oracle.

        One thing I forgot to add was that even though time travel was not *technically* a different world, the specific times and places that each girl went to seemed like a fantastical extension of each one’s notion of an ideal reality.

  24. nojojojo


    Anyway, for a portal fantasy I liked — Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, as others have pointed out. I needed a grown-up version of Narnia when I hit late adolescence, and that was it. Also, mooching from comics, I’ve become very fond of Bayou lately.

    Along the same lines, for an absolutely abysmal portal fantasy — though it’s supposedly science fiction, I call it “fantasy” because it was a deeply creepy white male power fantasy — Heinlein’s FARNHAM’S FREEHOLD. ::hork::

    Wasn’t all that fond of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, either — didn’t get past book 1.

    • Marie Brennan

      <lol> Write the article — I want to read it!

      Okay, now my brain wants to get an academic article out of this, nevermind that I’m not in academia anymore . . . because there might be an interesting contrast between male-protagonist portal stories and female-protagonist ones, and how issues of colonialism and privilege vary between them. (If indeed they do.)

  25. malsperanza

    Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

    The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie.

    Pan’s Labyrinth.

    Tons of fairy tales.

    Patricia McKillip’s Winter Rose & the sequel

  26. Anonymous

    Someone upthread mentioned Twelve Kingdoms, which was the first one I was going to recommend. I only know it through the anime, though–has the original novel been translated into English?

    But you asked for terrible examples, and I’m wracking my brain trying to think of the name of that Christian portal fantasy I read in gradeschool. I’ll get back to you.

    • mindstalk

      Several of the novels and stories have been translated by fans; 3 of the novels have been officially translated by Tokyopop. I think one fan (Eugune Woodbury) is a better translator, but I bought the books to support the author.
      is my own fanpage, including links or mirrors of various translations.

    • Marie Brennan

      Heh. I’m all about making people remember the bad stuff!

  27. juushika

    Harry Potter’s all but a portal fantasy, imho, given the way the wizarding world gets divided off. as you wrote somewhere up there. And I concur. A lot of the examples which want to spring to mind are everything-but portal fantasies. Harry Potter, where the magic world is completely unknown and separate, nevermind that it’s technically part of our own. Neverwhere (although Gaiman has some actual portal fantasies, like Stardust and Coraline), where the magic world is just out of sight but again part of our own. Urban fantasy I think makes these sort of not-portal fantasies all the more common—in fact, they may be what’s replacing that minigenre in large part. I have mixed opinions on all of them, but my view largely boils down to: They’re good if the fantasy world is sufficiently separate and realistically hard to believe in. If a character finds Magic Wonder Land in their back garden and doesn’t blink, I can’t believe in either the character or the magic. When they find Magic Wonder Land and it’s intelligently created and reasonably explained (as to why they hadn’t found it before), I may well go on to love the book.

    There are also portal from another world fantasies—not where someone comes to ours, but when they escape their fantasy world for another fantasy world. His Dark Materials comes to mind there. What makes those books a success is that each of the worlds within worlds feel real. A portal fantasy from our world makes the initial setting pretty easy to characterize, but when they start in a fantasy world there’s an automatic extra area of worldbuilding which needs work.

    In all cases and varieties of portal fantasies, including the old school our world –> magical world version, what makes it work for me:

    Realistic world building, including: The fantasy world(s) should have good and bad points. If they’re happy wonder worlds, they’re pure escapism; if they’re excessively dark undergrounds, they’re cheap thrills. They need to be as real and varied as any non-fantasy world, while still preserving enough wonder, in whatever form, to make the reader want to visit.

    Speaking of which, wish-fulfillment isn’t bad. Mary Sues are bad, sure, but a portal fantasy should open a whole new world in the magic-carpet-riding-and-singing sense: it should have its own sort of beauty and wonder, it should inspire dreams.

    Realistic disbelief and difficulties when encountering the other world. If the character accepts it too easily, they feel fake. If they fit in too easily, the world feels fake. If the transition isn’t difficult, there should be a reasonable explanation as to why.

    Examples of strict portal fantasies which I would consider remarkably successful include: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass, Palimpsest, The Hounds of the Morrigan (okay, not quite so strict), Pan’s Labyrinth, Coraline, Narnia.

    • juushika

      Oh! I forgot to add 10th Kindgom to the list of successes.

      Most of the failures for me have been less strictly portal fantasy and more portal-ish treading towards urban fantasy. I think with a lot of portal fantasies it’s possible to see fail coming pretty early—because, ideally, the portal is discovered early, and the hokiness/excessive ease/Mary Sues are visible from the beginning. (And then I stop reading and push them from my memory, so it’s hard to list.)

  28. mmegaera

    There are way too many comments for me to read through right now, alas, but has anyone mentioned an old kids’ book called Shadow Castle by Marian Cockrell? I had good enough memories of it that I searched it out again a few years ago, and it’s still as good as I remember.

  29. strangerian

    and for something completely different

    The story “Mom and Dad on the Home Front” (in an anthology titled New Magics) takes another end of the stick in showing parents whose grade-school children are disappearing at night, coming back with strange mementos, and then they find a magic wand… It’s a nice take on the theme, and maybe gives some insight as to why world-travellers are often loners or orphans in the first place, or at least traditionally return to the very minute they left. It’s by Sherwood Smith, which I hadn’t recalled until I checked the book just now. Very much of the deftly realistic view of this world, while epic magic hovers in the sidelines.

  30. cofax7

    I have to go to bed before reading all the comments, but I wanted to drop a rec for Joyce Ballou Gregorian’s stuff, that very odd trilogy, which was a rather unstandard portal fantasy. OOP now, I believe, more’s the pity.

    Second the rec for the Martha Wells’ Ile-Rien novels: very fun, complicated politics, and not really very wish-fulfillmenty at all. (Although we do get a bit of a romance.)

    One could argue that Charlie Jade (the South African tv show) is a portal fantasy, although I guess it’s technically portal SF.

  31. amysun

    Wow, so many comments. Has anyone said Coraline yet? If they haven’t, consider it said. If they have, then yes, I agree. πŸ™‚

  32. doriscrockford2

    These may not be quite as popular in fiction at the moment, but if you change the fantastical word “portal” to the more scientific “wormhole”, the successful tv shows “Lost” and “Fringe” seem to be exploring that.

    I completely agree with the “His Dark Materials” mention above. That would be my favourite example of the portal genre. I can’t think of any that haven’t already been mentioned for my best/worst; my thing as a kid was time-travel stories, which aren’t too far off, I suppose. The fish out of water aspect was certainly one of the appealing factors, and also the ability to learn about another society “first-hand” as it were: the protagonist and I were both experiencing the world for the first time.

    • mindstalk

      Also Futurama, on the time travel side.

      Howl’s Moving Castle is a bit odd: not primarily a portal fantasy, but Howl’s from Earth, and Sophie gets to visit modern Wales a bit, so we get our world from her perspective.

  33. unforth

    Don’t have time to fully engage this cause I’ve read a lot of portal fantasy (Narnia, Xanth has elements of it, various humor/fantasy by folks like Margaret Ball, Thomas Covenant of course, etc.) but I want to mention that this is an entire manga genre, too, and I’ve read some of those. I’d say the BEST example (not that that’s what you’re aiming for) is “From Far Away,” but “Red River” is excellent too. The worse? Probably Stephan Donaldson. Oh, Thomas Covenant, why?

  34. celestineangel

    The Catswold Portal. Can’t remember the name of the author off the top of my head.

    It was a little confusing, actually, as the main character was born in the other world, apparently lived as a child in our world for a few years before being discovered and moved back to the other world to then live as the daughter/apprentice to a wise woman. Of course, this is my straight-forward assessment of all that having read it a couple of times. It’s not nearly so clear on the reading of the book.

    Main character is also a cat shapeshifter. Oh, and the real queen of her cat-shifter people.

    Wish fulfillment? Yeeeaaaah. I’d have to say so. It’s well-written, if confusing at points, and entertaining, but obviously not a spectacular book plot-wise.

  35. tapinger

    I thought of a couple almost examples while reading this, and one real one that I just read.

    The real example I just finished (really, 10 minutes ago) is LightLand, by H. L. McCutchen. The cover and the SignificantWords are … uninspiring … but I actually ended up liking it, even if it’s mostly fluff: Lottie Cook finds her way to a land made of memories through a cherry box given to her by her father.

    One of the “almosts” is Sean Russell’s The River Into Darkness, where Earth is strongly implied to be a parallel world. I found the ending depressing but portals play a fairly significant role in the story: it appears wizards came through the portals originally, and it’s likely that all but the one remaining returned to Earth (or other worlds) through them by the time the story begins. There’s also a blatant reference to Hiroshima. Although the wizards have a better grasp of science than the world at large, there are definite magical elements.

    The other “almost” is Timothy Zahn’s The Green and the Gray. The aliens (plant parasites and troll-like creatures) escaped from their own world to Earth, and have apparently been hiding among humans for a while. Not a great book in my opinion, but there is a twist.

    Two others that I read a while back are the Archives of Anthropos by John White (a much more obviously Christian version of Narnia) and the Spectrum Chronicles by Thomas Locke, mostly light sci fi (but the mechanism for traveling to the other universe is never explained, and I would call that part of it fantasy).

    • tapinger

      Here’s a few more, just for fun.

      Catherine Fisher’s Incarceron: The twist here is that the other world was created as a giant prison. (Note that my sci fi sensibilities were offended by the mechanics until I accepted that this book is really fantasy with a sugar coating of sci fi.) Also, the story follows characters on both sides, but no one really crosses over until near the end.

      Jame Stoddard’s The High House. Earth is barely touched in this one (it really only plays a role near the beginning) but the High House does connect it and other fantastic lands.

      Between Two Worlds. Fairly straightforward portal story, although the other world is mostly uninhabited and the wish fulfillment, if there is any, doesn’t really go their way. Also one of the few webcomics that I’ve actually seen finish rather than merely stop.

  36. Anonymous

    Very happy to read your thoughts on aDwD. I thought AFFC was well done, if exceedingly bleak, but I very much disliked Dance, for a lot of the same reasons as you. I started to do a reread to see why I didn’t like it and then stopped after two parts. (here is the beginning in the unlikely event anyone cares: )

    Among the bits which overlapped with your thinking:

    Example of how this book can be well-written and off-putting at the same time- A paragraph about Tyrion pissing followed up by “He pisses well, at least,” a voice observed. Then Tyrion shakes off a few drops and replies “Pissing is the least of my talents. You ought to see me shit.” Okay, it’s witty. But there’s a LOT of piss and shit in this book, it seems like. Yeah, I get it, same as with the disease and the bad smellsβ€”there’s a thematic point. This book is a dungheap–errr, no, wait, that’s not quite the thematic point–the world of this book is a dungheap. But excretion is necessary to fertilize growth! And it’s a dungheap full of maggots!!! And we all know what comes from maggots!!! Yes, aDwD is full of maggots just *waiting* to hatch into butterflies!!!!
    (that last bit in reference to a previously overheard conversation IRL where someone was insisting that maggots turn into butterflies; I don’t actually think the book was being that optimistic)


    Dany is one of my favorite characters, and I sympathize and empathize with her a lot in the first 3 books. I’m also fond of Barristan Selmy. And Grey Worm. But I am not loving this chapter. Partly I’m kinda overdosing on grim and depressing at this point. Partly there seems to be a “good-hearted people are naive, stupid and helpless” theme going down in Mereen, which irritates me. Yes, I know, Dany is just a young girl, etc, but her lack of imaginative problem solving in this book baffles me, and seems to run counter to her past boldness. And Selmy apparently just completely failed to progress beyond the Eddard Stark School of Politics despite living 60 years in two different nests of vipers. So, um, yeah. Sorta over authorial stacking the deck in a way that doesn’t work for me,whatever the purpose might be. Also, I’m thinking the dragon is being set up, cause, ummm, why/how did Drogon eat the kid but not the bones? But am not sure. Maybe the father followed the dragon and dug through the excrement. That would be pretty typical of this book, actually. I’m almost surprised we didn’t get a detailed scene. Which makes me again think “set up.” Anyway, I want the dragons to start eating all the adults, or at least the vast majority of adults that I really don’t like. That would make this book a lot better.

    And yeah,no way Dany treats her dragons like that. I don’t buy it.

    And while I did like *some* parts of the book, iirc, which puts me more in its camp than you in some respects, I’m totally with you on this: “There’s just piss and shit and cannibalism and people being flayed and stupidity and bad decisions and the payoff never coming.”

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