by Martin Dukes
First, let’s define it: A portal fantasy is a story about a character who gets transported (perhaps voluntarily, perhaps not) into a fantastic or alternate world. They pass through a portal of some kind (a wardrobe? a tunnel? an interdimensional hole?) and find themselves in a reality that’s different from the world they left behind.
“As anyone who reads science fiction and fantasy can tell you, life is full of doors … appearing unexpectedly, leading to unexpected places. Other worlds, other times. Narnia. An alien planet. The Bronze Age.” James Davis Nicoll
During December, you’re invited to explore a couple of dozen portals and doorways, via “Passing Through Portals,” a month-long promotion sponsored by StoryOrigin and 20 or so participating authors, myself among them.
Enjoy your otherworldly travels!
A good day’s work. Got my errands done in town this morning, then drafted a heartfelt Author’s Note for the back of Waterspell Book 4 and tweaked the blurb into something I’m almost happy with. Thoughts are welcome. Does this give too much away?
In the House of Verek, it’s five years later. The waters are troubled. Memories are darkening. If the story is to end “happily ever after” for Carin and Verek, old demons must be laid to rest.
Readers of the Waterspell fantasy series will welcome this long-awaited fourth book for the answers it provides to questions raised in volumes 1 through 3: Does the wysard Verek regain his powers, and will Carin make her way back to him? Have Carin’s parents survived the plague that devastated their world, and will she ever see them again? Did Lanse survive the attack by Carin’s defender? Is Lord Legary really dead? And not least: Did the necromancer die in the jaws of Carin’s conjured dragon? Remember: there was no blood in the water. These questions and more are answered in Waterspell Book 4, which picks up the story of the lovers, Carin and Verek, half a decade after readers saw the pair separated in the closing chapters of the original trilogy.
By the blood of Abraxas, it’s about time we learned what happened next.
In the Before Time (pre-2020 Pandemic) I enjoyed traveling. Recently I had occasion to look through old vacation photos, and I found three that must have served as direct inspiration for pivotal elements in my Waterspell books. Their influence operated subconsciously. I didn’t have the pictures before me when I wrote their imagery into my story. When I came across the photos, however, long after the fact, I instantly recognized all that they had given me.
I snapped this picture at the Honey Creek State Natural Area in the Texas Hill Country, on a tour organized by the Texas Nature Conservancy. The outing was advertised as a wildflower tour, but when we got there our guide apologized for the almost complete absence of wildflowers—the deer had eaten them between the time the tour was arranged and before we arrived. I remember the beauty and wildness of the place, though. This old snapshot does not do justice to the shimmering of sunlight on the pads of the water lilies. Clearly, the vision stayed with me, and inspired the Lake of the Lilies in the woods near Verek’s manor house.
During a trip to England, I got to see the Major Oak in the midst of Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire. We soaked up the whole Robin Hood–Sherwood Forest magic of the place. I came home with a beautiful Lincoln Green scarf woven of English wool and sporting an embroidered Robin with his bow drawn. Looking at this picture of the Major Oak, I have no doubt that the tree was the subconscious inspiration for the Sanctuary Oak that saves Carin from the wasteland dogs. The above photo by Jerzy Kociatkiewicz appears at The Treeographer and shows the tree standing alone in the midst of a clearing, just as Carin’s Sanctuary stands. The branching pattern of the Major Oak’s thick limbs suggests how Carin is able to leap into her sanctuary tree to escape the dogs, and how she can sleep that night, though uncomfortably, by lashing herself to one of its thick horizontal branches.
Four stone benches ring the well of the wysards in the cavern of enchantment deep beneath Verek’s manor house. The benches are arranged like the four cardinal points of a compass. When I came across this old vacation photo, I gasped in recognition. Look closely, and you can see the ornate E, S, and W directional markers of this stone compass that’s laid into the floor of a watchtower (or observation deck). The letter N for North barely appears at the left edge of the picture. I can’t remember exactly where I took this photo in the Texas Hill Country, but I’m inclined to think it’s either Longhorn Cavern or Inks Lake State Park in Burnet County, next to Inks Lake on the Colorado River. Seen through the lens of my writing, I easily picture the mirror pool replacing that stone mosaic in the center of the floor, with the benches set around the pool at the cardinal points, the directional letters giving way to carvings of key, crescent moon, fish, and radiant sun.
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” (Attributed, probably incorrectly, to St. Augustine.)
This is the best definition of “literary fantasy” I’ve come across. The definer, Emily Temple, also lists and briefly describes recommended books in the genre. Of course, I must add the Waterspell series to the list, as it closely fits her definition:
“For the purposes of this list, I am using it [the term ‘literary fantasy’] to mean works of fantasy that prioritize sentence-level craft and/or complex thematic structures, and/or that play with expectations and fantasy tropes, and/or that focus on characters and interiority as primary goals of the work. I don’t just mean ‘well-written fantasy’ or ‘literary novels that have magic in them,’ though both kinds of books can be found here. What I mean is books that relate to and pull from the conventions of both genres: fantasy and literary fiction. This means there might be dragons, and there might be a hero’s journey, and there might be some lyrical descriptions, and there might be some family conflict. There is also some crossover with SF and literary SF, of course.”
Find Temple’s list on Literary Hub at “10 Works of Literary Fantasy You Should Read.”
Recently I listened to the audiobook (all 51 hours) of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, beautifully narrated by Davina Porter. Of course I’d read the series years ago when it was a New York Times bestseller, but listening to the audiobook version was even better for getting totally caught up in the story.
With great interest, then, I paid my $10 for this Profs and Pints Online program: “The Women of King Arthur Legends,” presented by Sara Cleto and Brittany Warman, former instructors at The Ohio State University and co-founders of the Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic.
Their talk is well worth $10. I highly recommend it. I had fun comparing and contrasting the women of Bradley’s historical fantasy with the women of Cleto and Warman’s folkloric interpretations. Their overview of the traditions and legends surrounding the women deepened my appreciation for what Bradley accomplished in her wonderful retelling.
Here’s the program summary from the online link:
“Morgan Le Fay, Queen Guinevere, The Lady of the Lake, Elaine. Each of these women play crucial roles in the rise and fall of King Arthur, Britain’s greatest legendary hero. But they’re almost always presented as enigmatic, ambiguous forces in the story.
“Is Morgan Le Fay the evil sorceress who plots Arthur’s demise, or is she the good fairy who takes the dying Arthur to the magical isle of Avalon for rest and healing? Is Guinevere an adulterous schemer, or a woman trapped by politics and the limited possibilities for women of her time? The numerous gaps in the traditional materials of these legends allow many different interpretations, some positive or nuanced, and some that hint at more than a little of the misogyny, fear, and contempt women have faced throughout the ages.
“In this talk, Sara Cleto and Brittany Warman will guide you through the complex world of Arthuriana and discuss how these women and their stories have been understood (and misunderstood) from ancient times to modern retellings. Join us for an enchanted night of swords and sorcery, as we explore what these strange and powerful women offer today’s world.”
The recording of their talk, available online, includes recommended readings, both scholarly and popular. Below is a screenshot of part of their list. I was surprised that The Mists of Avalon did not make the Creative side of the list—it’s certainly creative. But perhaps the omission is due to the books being so well known, they need no introduction. In any case, I’ve added several of Cleto and Warman’s recommendations to my personal reading list.
Treat yourself doubly, to this online presentation from Profs & Pints and also to the fabulous audiobook version of Mists. Together they’re an investment of more than 52 hours, but it’s time wonderfully well spent.
The British TV program “Escape to the Country” has been the perfect pandemic companion to my reading of Magical and Mystical Sites: Europe and the British Isles (1977 hardcover) by Elizabeth Pepper and John Wilcock.
Thanks to the far-ranging property-seekers who long to move to the quiet rural areas of the British Isles, I can almost pinpoint in my mind, without a map, many of the mystical sites that are featured in the Pepper-Wilcock travelogue. Which is a good thing, since the book contains no maps,* only tedious driving directions such as “Following the road from Ballysodare around the foot of the hill to a farm leads to a narrow pathway up the steepest side of Knocknarea hill,” or “Here a right-hand turn on a winding, single-track road leads after 2½ miles to Staigue Fort …”
It’s a hardcover book, yet it’s littered with the kinds of detailed how-to-get-there instructions that one would expect to find in a paperback guidebook which is meant to be replaced annually with an updated edition. If, however, you can train your eyes to skip past the innumerable references to such-and-such road and this-or-that path, you’ll enjoy reading about the magical and mystical sites the authors visited in their research for this 1977 book.
I not only skipped past the driving directions, I skipped from Ephesus to Malta, and then into Southern Germany. The magical lore and history of those places was interesting, but the narrative really picked up for me in Part III, covering mystical sites in Cornwall, Glastonbury, Wales, Scotland, the Western Isles, and Ireland. Those chapters bristle with intriguing details about magical women of the wild wood and witches’ brews “cooked with various incantations over a fire of oak logs in a vessel made out of the skull of a decapitated thief.” Great stuff for a writer of fantasy!
Despite the tedium of the overly detailed driving directions, the lack of maps (which such a book cries out for),* the paucity of illustrations (the line drawings that introduce each chapter are lovely but insufficient), and the tiny type in which the book is set (small enough to threaten eyestrain), I’ll rate it four stars for its comprehensiveness. Those who have an interest in the history and traditions of magic will find a wealth of details that go far beyond the typical focus on Atlantis, Stonehenge, and fairies. Fantasy writers especially will want to keep a notepad near at hand to jot down the many ideas which this book is sure to spark.
*(The 2000 edition—sporting a different cover—appears to be updated with the much-needed maps. I haven’t seen it; I bought the 1977 hardback, as pictured above. But the description here, of the 2000 paperback, says: “Rounded out with excellent photographs and maps, Magical and Mystical Sites is a complete historical and practical guide to the sacred sites of Europe and the British Isles. Illustrated.” That sounds good. You’ll definitely want the version with maps and photos.)