Quarterly Almanac

Where to Start with Portal Fantasies by Seanan McGuire

Originally appearing in the second volume of our Quarterly Almanac, Where to Start with Portal Fantasies is the part of an ongoing series of essays detailing where one can start with any number of SFF/popgeekery topics. For this round, we asked writer Seanan McGuire to talk about portal fantasies, inspired by her excellent novella Every Heart a Doorway. Enjoy!


Where to Start with Portal Fantasies by Seanan Mcguire

The term “Portal Fantasy” is often treated as synonymous with “children’s story.” A child, eager for adventure or needing to learn a lesson—or both—falls through a doorway or portal of some kind and finds themselves in a strange new world, one which happens to have been perfectly designed to teach them what they need to know before packing them up and sending them home, older, wiser, and finally ready to take up their rightful place as productive members of society. The best cure for wanting magical adventures, in a portal fantasy world, is actually having a magical adventure.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Garcia

This is meant to be a sort of “starter kit” essay, telling you where to begin with the portal fantasy genre, but the odds are good, if you’ve grown up reading English-language science fiction and fantasy, that you’ve encountered the portal fantasy already. Baum’s Oz, Carroll’s Wonderland, Barrie’s Neverland, and Lewis’s Narnia are all “classic” portal fantasies, texts which have managed, rightly or wrongly, to become definitional for the genre. In all four, a child or children from our world is carried to a fantastic new place through some force of nature (a twister, gravity) or magical device (Peter Pan, a strange wardrobe), and adventure ensues.

Interestingly, although many definitions of the portal fantasy will involve going once and never again, in three of these four, the child or children, having once traveled, will travel again. Dorothy even winds up choosing Oz on a permanent basis, and there is an air to the Alice stories which implies that she might have done the same if she’d been allowed. Only Wendy and Susan are eventually denied the sanctuary of their magical worlds, and in both cases, for the same reason: they grew up. Being an adult—especially being an adult woman—is of-ten treated as an impassable barrier in the portal fantasy, the one monster that can’t be defeated with a vorpal blade or a bucket of water. My first portal fantasies were found in cartoons Television in the 1980s had seized on the idea that there could be a magical world just behind the nearest door or over the nearest rainbow, and splashed it liberally across Saturday mornings.


My Little Pony and Friends, Dungeons and Dragons, The Fluppy Dogs, and even The Care Bears were all classic portal fantasies, with normal children falling into magic and being forced to fight their way home—assuming they wanted to return at all. Children taken by the Care Bears would normally have one adventure, maybe two, before going back to their normal lives. Megan and her siblings, upon being taken to Ponyland, never went back. Sometimes the happy ending in a portal fantasy is running away forever. But this is, again, a primer. I’ll assume, for the sake of argument, that you’ve encountered some or all of the classics, and that, if not, the authors and settings listed above will tell you where to start. That’s a lot of required reading for a relatively small sub-genre, true, but those particular stories form the cultural under-pinnings of so much modern genre fiction that it’s worth it. So what has portal fantasy done for us lately?


If you reach the end of your required reading angry on behalf of Susan and Wendy and all the other girls who found the doors to magic slammed in their faces as soon as they grew up, Barbara Hambly’s got your back, with her Windrose Chronicles, beginning with The Silent Tower and continuing into The Silicon Mage. The first of these came out in 1986, so the tech is fairly dated but internally consistent, and seeing an adult woman—a nerd, even—having a magical adventure was so important to me when I stumbled across them. It’s an epic adventure, an epic love story, and a beautiful adult portal fantasy. Or maybe you’re looking for more portal fantasies aimed at the children we were and the children we love to share stories with, Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is a classic portal fantasy, by turns whimsical and brutal, utterly suitable for reading either as a solo adult or as someone looking for a story they can read with their kids. The series is finished now, which means it has a solid conclusion and won’t make you wait. Lucky you!

Or maybe you’re aching from the contradictions between our world and the worlds on the other side of the portal, yearning for explanation, for resolution, for something to make it all make sense. In that case, I heartily recommend Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Turn of the Story, which tidily sets many of the classic portal fantasy tropes on their ears, sending the irascible Elliot over the wall and into a story he’s not entirely sure he knows how to deal with. These three worlds — Ferryth, Fairyland, and the Border — couldn’t be more different, but between them, they’ll ground you in what modern portal fantasy has to offer. There are so many others, from authors ranging from Stephen King to Diana Wynne Jones, and the adventure is only just beginning. That’s the best thing about adventure. It’s always only just beginning, even when you’re in the middle of it all.

All you need to do is open a door.


Collecting original short fiction, essays, reviews, and reprints from diverse and powerful voices in speculative fiction, The Book Smugglers’ Quarterly Almanac: Volume 2 is essential for any SFF fan.


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