If you’ve ever wished to travel to another world where magic is real and adventures await, then you’re probably a fan of portal fantasy.
Portal fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that involves a character traveling from one world (typically the one we know) into a magical world. These doorways can be magical doors (such as the wardrobe in Narnia), rabbit holes, or mirrors. These worlds can be wondrous places, strange and unusual, or even dark and terrifying.
In the spirit of classics like The Chronicles of Narnia and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, this list introduces modern favorites of the classic genre, taking you to new lands ready to be explored!
Young Adult Portal Fantasy Books
His Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman (1995-2000)
In this classic fantasy trilogy from Phillip Pullman, all worlds are connected to varying degrees. When an experiment blows a hole in the fabric between the worlds, the characters from other realities begin to meet. The second book soon introduces the subtle knife, giving its wielder, Will Parrish, the ability to cut through reality and make doors into other worlds. In this coming-of-age story, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parrish travel across parallel worlds to discover the truth of the mysterious–and coveted–Dust.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman (2002)
Some fantasy doorways lead to adventure and others unlock danger lurking beneath a fantastical surface. That’s certainly the case in this middle-grade story (that’s great for all ages). When Coraline unlocks a secret door in her living room, she discovers a new, seemingly perfect world governed by her “Other Mother.” Only in this case, things aren’t quite what they seem and Coraline must match wits with a host of creepy facsimiles in this mirror world.
A Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (2011)
Karou seems like any other teenage art student living in Prague. However, she has a secret. She was raised by four chimaera that live in a transdimensional workshop that exists out of space and time somewhere between our world and Eretz, the Chimaera homeland. These workshops are connected by doorways all across the world. Karou works for her adopted family, gathering bits of bone and teeth from her world. But when another race of magical creatures (the seraphim) arrives to destroy her family, she finds herself in the middle of a magical war.
Wayward Children Series by Seanan McGuire (2016-2021)
Welcome to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Children disappear every day. Many of those slip through the cracks in reality and find their way to a magical world. But what happens when their time in those worlds is done? That’s the dilemma for Nancy, who tumbled into a new world and wants nothing more than to return to it. She’s sent to Miss West’s to “recover” from her supposed delusions, only to find that she’s not alone. But as she begins to settle in, gruesome murders threaten her newfound home and friends. Can these wayward children solve the mysteries of the house before it’s too late?
In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan (2017)
Sometimes, you read stories about chosen heroes finding their destinies in new worlds. Other times, you end up with Elliot. On a class field trip, Elliot finds a wall that no one else can see. On the other side of it is the Borderlands. This new world is filled with magic, adventure, and classes that teach more sword fighting than any 13-year-old should be comfortable with. What he discovers is that sometimes magical worlds have the same problems as our own do. But with the help of some great friends, an unexpected romance, and his own knack for diplomacy, Elliot is ready to make his new home a better place. This fantastic story is about growing up, finding out where you belong, and falling in love.
A Blade so Black by L.L. McKinney (2018)
In this modern Afrofuturist retelling of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, teenage warrior Alice Kingston travels between our world and a dark realm known as Wonderland to battle the Nightmares that threaten both sides of the portal. When her mysterious mentor is injured, Alice must travel deeper into Wonderland to save him–but at what cost?
Adult Portal Fantasy
The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King (1998-2004)
“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” So begins the story of Roland Deschain, last of the knightly gunslingers, and his quest to discover the secrets of Mid-World. Combining weird wild west, horror, and reality-shifting magical worlds, the Dark Tower series follows the story of the gunslinger and his companions as they travel through realms to fulfill Roland’s mysterious quest. At the heart of everything is the titular Dark Tower, the nexus of all worlds.
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)
When tattoo artist Johnny Truant finds a trunk filled with an unfinished manuscript in his newly rented apartment, he uncovers the mystery of a house that is bigger on the inside. What he discovers is a record of a documentary that doesn’t seem to exist (The Navidson Record) and the harrowing story that unravels within it. As the homeowners begin to explore a corridor that shouldn’t be there, the house begins to further change around them. The nontraditional narrative combined with an unreliable narrator makes House of Leaves a book that will linger with you far after you’ve finished.
The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman (2009-2014)
Quentin Coldwater is miserable. He feels trapped in the ennui of his young life without much to look forward to. After being accepted into Brakebills Academy, he discovers that magic is real–and a lot of hard work. But it doesn’t solve his problems. If anything, he makes brand new ones, as Quentin discovers a portal to Fillory: a magical land he thought only existed in his childhood storybooks. He soon learns that neither magic nor fantastical realms will fix his troubles. This series is an excellent example of classic portal fantasy story elements while also tackling mental health, addiction, and the trials of adulthood.
A Darker Shade of Magic Trilogy by V.E. Schwab (2015-2017)
Long ago, people traveled among the four parallel worlds (Red London, Gray London, White London, and Black London) with ease. But now, that magic has been lost. Officially, Kell is a royal messenger gifted with the rare ability to travel through these portals into different worlds. Unofficially, he’s a smuggler bringing back magical goods to those who can pay the price. When he smuggles a dangerous artifact across the barriers, he finds himself a hunted man. Then, an encounter with the thief Delilah Bard sets them both on a path filled with corrupt magicians, evil schemes, and dark magic.