The best portal fantasy novels that will take you to hidden worlds

Ryan Leslie Author Of The Between
By Ryan Leslie

Who am I?

I grew up addicted to portal stories, where fantastical lands full of magic and adventure are accessible from our mundane world if you just know where to look. Stories like The Neverending Story, Labyrinth, Alice in Wonderland, and The Chronicles of Narnia. My first novel, The Between, is a portal story like those but written more for adults–at least, for adults who are still young at heart. If you, too, like to daydream about slipping from your work cubicle into someplace strange and weird–and perhaps a little dangerous–here are books I think you might love.

I wrote...

The Between

By Ryan Leslie,

Book cover of The Between

What is my book about?

While landscaping his backyard, ever-conscientious Paul Prentice discovers an iron door buried in the soil. His childhood friend and perpetual source of mischief, Jay Lightsey, pushes them to explore what's beneath. When the door slams shut above them, Paul and Jay are trapped in a between-worlds place of Escher-like rooms and horror story monsters, all with a mysterious connection to a command-line, dungeon explorer computer game from the early '80s called The Between.

Paul and Jay find themselves filling roles in a story that seems to play out over and over again. But in this world, where their roles warp their minds, the biggest threat to survival may not be the Koŝmaro, risen from the Between's depths to hunt them; the biggest danger may be each other.

The books I picked & why

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By Clive Barker,

Book cover of Weaveworld

Why this book?

That antique rug on the floor over there. What if a secret world is hidden within its countless knots and dyed threads? What if a fraying corner lets lose a creature trapped within? What if you step on it just so… and slip into a hidden world?

I read Weaveworld back in high school, shortly after it came out. It was my first Clive Barker novel and first adult, Alice in Wonderland-style, hidden world novel. I picked it up on a whim, and that whim changed the course of my life in many ways. I began writing in my spare time, inspired by Barker’s brilliant twists of words and by his surreal and haunting worlds.

The End of Mr. Y

By Scarlett Thomas,

Book cover of The End of Mr. Y

Why this book?

At no point while reading The End of Mr. Y did I know where Scarlett Thomas was taking me, but I enjoyed the hell out of it. The main character, graduate student Ariel Manto, discovers a rare cursed book that seems to lead to another world. Or, at least, that is the story on the surface. Beneath the surface, Thomas has mashed together big and weird questions of philosophy and science. The End of Mr. Y is like the older, aloof sister of Jason Pargin’s John Dies at the End (which I also thoroughly enjoyed).

The Raw Shark Texts

By Steven Hall,

Book cover of The Raw Shark Texts

Why this book?

The Raw Shark Texts is one of the most surreal, creative novels I’ve ever read. In it, there’s a conceptual world intersecting our own, a world composed of our words, thoughts, and ideas. A creature of that world–a shark-like fish called the Ludovician–is hunting the main character and eating his memories. And that is just the start of the weirdness. If you read this book, make sure to pick up the print copy, where you get to see the Ludovician swimming in the book’s pages.


By Susanna Clarke,

Book cover of Piranesi

Why this book?

Clarke’s debut, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, is grand storytelling on the scale of Tolstoy or Dumas. In contrast, Piranesi, Clarke’s second novel, is under 300 pages and has a small cast. Yet in many ways, the mysterious and deeply allegorical Piranesi is just as big as its predecessor. In Piranesi, the title character chronicles the exploration of an infinite house, filled with crumbling statues, artifacts from past inhabitants, and even an entire ocean that occasionally swells from the bottom floor and into the halls and rooms above. I get the sense that Piranesi rewards readers who explore its pages a second time, and I look forward to digging back in.

Nine Princes in Amber: The Chronicles of Amber

By Roger Zelazny,

Book cover of Nine Princes in Amber: The Chronicles of Amber

Why this book?

My recommendations so far have been tales where people from our real world slip into hidden other worlds. The Chronicles of Amber series turns this on its head. Amber and Chaos are the true worlds, and our own world is one of many shadow worlds. The multiverse hopping in this series feels both modern (like the tales of Dr. Strange in the MCU) and like a trippy, fever-dream product of the 1970s. Zelazny is a writer’s writer. His books are packed with ideas and written with raw prose that dances between the pulpy and the beautiful.

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