The best—because they’re unusual—portal fantasy books

The Books I Picked & Why

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

By C.S. Lewis, Pauline Baynes

Book cover of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Why this book?

The entire Chronicles of Narnia were go-to books when I was a kid, but The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was a favorite then, and remains one to this day. I loved this book because it wasn’t about war or fighting evil. Instead, it was about exploration, about discovering what wonders might lie over the horizon. Also, Eustace is such a difficult character, and his growth into someone we can like doesn’t come through miracles or being a Chosen One, but through learning to admit his errors and learn from them. Add in Reepicheep, the universe’s best heroic mouse, and what isn’t there to love?

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The Dragon and the George

By Gordon R. Dickson

Book cover of The Dragon and the George

Why this book?

This is the first portal fantasy I remember reading where the people going through the portal were ordinary, believable adults. I first read it when I was in college, and the graduate student protagonists were facing challenges that I knew were coming up for me, which made them all the more appealing. The non-human “outsider” perspective thrust upon Jim Eckert when he suddenly finds himself in a dragon’s body also appealed to me far more than those portal fantasies where the protagonists are automatically hailed as heroes and saviors.  

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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?

The entire ten-volume Chronicles of Amber is a portal fantasy in which there is no portal. Instead, the ability to journey between realities (known as “Shadows”) is inherent to scions of Amber, the one reality of which all others are shadows. As is the case in many of Zelazny’s works, the main characters are immortals or the closest thing to them, and they have left echoes of themselves in many realities. I loved the richness of the concept, the mythic overtones and undertones, and how the greatest transformation in the course of the story is in how the characters perceive themselves. At the start, so many are arrogant would-be kings. By the end, they realize what they’re lacking, and that immortal power and pretention are not enough.

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Every Heart a Doorway

By Seanan McGuire

Book cover of Every Heart a Doorway

Why this book?

Even I was very young, every time I read a portal fantasy, I wondered how the kids (because so many portal fantasies are about kids) coped after they were sent back home and had to deal with their ordinary lives. After all, they’d been heroes or saviors or found true love or whatever. Now they had to go back to school and go to bed on time? Seanan McGuire did what I never thought of doing, and wrote a book that addresses this question. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a good tale in its own right, with a cast of lively characters, and an interesting setting. But Every Heart a Doorway is special to me because it addresses that “there’s no place like home” is a lot more complicated than it seems.

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Summer in Orcus

By T. Kingfisher

Book cover of Summer in Orcus

Why this book?

So many portal fantasies take place in settings that are a sort of generic Europe. Summer in Orcus is a delight on many levels, but one of the best is that Orcus, where twelve-year-old Summer finds herself after a completely atypical encounter with Baba Yaga, is odd enough that it makes Alice’s Wonderland seem normal by comparison. By the end of her journey through Orcus, Summer finds her heart’s desire.  However, it’s nothing like the power, glory, romantic love that are more usual, but something much more deceptive and deep. 

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