Alice stepped in a rabbit hole and fell into Wonderland. A twister whisked Dorothy away to Oz. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy opened a wardrobe door and found the land of Narnia. Even Harry Potter discovered a magical world lurking just beyond the edges of the everyday. The parallel worlds that exist in fiction are by turns fantastic, quirky, dark, and dangerous. The books in this list prove that there’s magic right and left and in our very own backyards—if we know where to look.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman, 2009, Viking Press (Literary Fiction/ Fantasy)
Nerdy high school genius Quentin Coldwater spends most of his time wishing he were in Fillory, the fictional magic land featured in the children’s books that Quentin never outgrew. The Fillory series guarantees adventure and enchantment when the real world fails to live up to expectation—which, for Quentin, it frequently does. He’s too smart to be interested in school, he’s in unrequited love with his best friend’s girl, and happiness seems perpetually just out of reach. Even when Quentin discovers that magic is real, it’s a bit of a letdown. Admitted to an exclusive college of sorcery, Quentin is thrilled to finally belong—and then exhausted when the study of magic turns out to be just as grueling as the study of anything else. Quentin becomes a skilled magician with a close and catty group of friends, but the sense of completion that he expected magic to fulfill is still painfully absent. It’ll take something major to halt Quentin’s downward spiral into disillusionment—something like the revelation that Fillory is real and reachable. Fillory is a real place, but it’s not all happy adventures and talking bunny rabbits. It’s a dangerous place teeming with its own histories, politics, and enemies, and Quentin will have to face all his demons in order to survive. The Magicians is, at first glance, like a grown-up Harry Potter venturing into The Chronicles of Narnia, complete with the sex, drugs, and alcohol-fueled lifestyle of the modern party-school undergrad. But there’s a great deal of mystery, intrigue, and complexity behind the scenes as author Lev Grossman balances the power of fantasy with the harshness of reality. Every bit as satisfying as the fantasies of our youth, The Magicians is not to be missed—nor is the sequel, The Magician King, due out in 2011.
P.S. Fans of The Magicians have had a whale of a time creating plots and histories for the Fillory and Further books and their fictional author Christopher Plover. Check out these websites—and the “official” site for the Brakebills Academy of Magic.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, 2003, Harper Perennial, originally published 1996 (Fantasy)
Richard Mayhew lives in London. He has a job. He has an apartment. He has a fiancé. He has a regular everyday sort of life. All that is about to change. Richard, bumbling and late to dinner, stops to help a dirty, bleeding young woman lying on the sidewalk. Much to fiancé’s chagrin, Richard scoops her up and takes her home to recuperate. The waiflike girl is named Door and there’s something very odd about her. Sure, she refuses to go to the hospital or call the police, and yes, she heals rather quickly and hides rather too well when a pair of ominous men in black come looking for her, but it’s more than that. When Door thanks Richard and leaves again, it seems the brief adventure is over. But then Richard begins to change. His friends don’t recognize him, his fiancé barely notices him, and strangers can’t even see he’s there. Knowing Door can answer his questions, Richard picks up on the few hints she dropped and plunges into London Below, a weird and wild world than exists under the sidewalks and subway tunnels of London proper and is inhabited by those who “fell between the cracks”—people who live in the sewers, people who talk to rats, people who can do magic. Soon Richard is one of Door’s companions on a dangerous quest through this bizarre subterranean land. If Richard wants to get back to his blissfully humdrum life, he’s got to prove his worth against all manner of assassins, monsters, and mayhem. Always inventive author Neil Gaiman is at his best here as he skillfully weaves myths and legends together with bits and pieces of the familiar to create a magical world that is entirely original. Witty and wickedly inventive, Neverwhere is fantasy at its finest.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by David McKean, 2002, Harper Collins (Fantasy/ Teen Fantasy/ Children’s Fantasy)
For a “lost-in-a-magical-realm” story, author Neil Gaiman is, hands down, the go-to guy. The more he writes, the more fantastic his fantasy worlds get. In Coraline, for example, a bored little girl wiles away the rainy day exploring the rambling house she’s just moved into with her preoccupied parents. One intriguing door opens onto a brick wall—a division built when the big house was converted into units. But one night, in true Chronicles of Narnia fashion, Coraline turns the knob and walks into a parallel world where everything in her dull life is mirrored with fantastic effect. The toys are better, the scrawny black cat that hangs around outside can talk, and Coraline’s “other” parents are kind and attentive and loving—even if their sewn-on black button eyes are decidedly creepy. Coraline chooses to go back to her own world, but in doing so she sets off a chain of events with dangerous consequences. Her real parents have disappeared, and only another venture into the not-quite-right realm of the “other mother” can bring them back. A distinct air of menace pervades this suspenseful children’s story, harking back to ghost stories and grim fairy tales of yore. Tapping into age-old fears and complimented by the dark, scratchy illustrations of David McKean, Coraline’s chills have thrilled readers of all ages. Winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker Awards, the book has also been adapted into a sophisticated graphic novel (illustrated by P. Craig Russell) and a whimsical animated movie.
InterWorld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves, 2007, HarperCollins (Science Fiction/ Fantasy/ Teen Fantasy)
Fifteen-year-old Joey Harker has a gift for getting lost. So lost, in fact, that one day he wanders right out of our world and smack into another. This is Joey’s real gift—he’s a Walker, able to move effortlessly between countless parallel worlds. Joey’s new ability is also a dangerous one. Almost before he can blink, he’s being hunted by not one but two evil forces who seek to harness his world-walking power—the Binary, fierce members of a scientific world from one end of the spectrum, and the HEX, cruel citizens of a magical land from the other extreme. Joey’s only refuge is the InterWorld, an in-between place of balance populated by lots of other Joey Harkers from lots of other alternate Earths. These Joeys are anything but identical. There’s werewolf-ish Jakon Haarkanen from an Earth where evolution took a twist and humans descended from wolves, and J/O HrKr, part boy, part computer, from a scientifically advanced futuristic world, to name just a few. Joey must prove himself to these alternate selves as they all learn to wield their power to Walk—because Joey is about to cause several worlds’ worth of trouble. Fast-paced and action-packed, InterWorld is an adventure story that expects its readers to be familiar with science fiction standards like parallel universes and alternate timelines, and then expects readers to put everything they know on hold and just go along for the wild ride. Fantasy favorite Neil Gaiman is (no surprise) one of the inventive minds behind InterWorld. The other collaborator is Michael Reaves, television writer for such sci-fi gems as The Twilight Zone and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Together, Gaiman’s and Reaves’ genius for inventing new worlds rises to new heights of creativity and daring. Let’s hope there’s more where that came from.
Malice by Chris Wooding, 2009, Scholastic Press (Teen Fantasy/ Horror/ Graphic Novel)
Everyone knows about the underground comic book Malice. Supposedly it doesn’t even exist, but if you get your hands on a copy, mix a few ingredients, and chant “Tall Jake, take me away,” you’ll find yourself yanked into the pages of the comic’s sinister world. Of course, that’s just an urban legend. It’s a coincidence that the kids in the comic look like missing children. Those kids must be runaways, and the artist just uses their photos for inspiration…right? Wrong, and teenagers Seth and Kady are about to find out the hard way. When their friend Luke disappears, danger-loving Seth and curious Kady are immediately suspicious. When they find a blank comic book emblazoned with a big red M in Luke’s room, they begin to suspect that there’s more to Malice than mere rumor. Seth, bored of everyday hum-drum living, is eager to call Tall Jake and jump into the comic. But when the chant works, Seth is overwhelmed by a menacing world filled with clockwork monsters and mechanical mayhem. Not one to take any sort of adventure lying down, Seth joins forces with a rag-tag group of teens who have managed to defy Tall Jake and survive. Back in the real world, Kady is hot on the trail of Malice’s unknown creators—who turn out to be every bit as dangerous as the chaotic alternate world they’ve created. Toying with the conventions of horror movies, urban legends, and comic books, author Chris Wooding has crafted a heart-pounding, nail-biting tale of suspense. The packaging is part of the fun of Malice, with its three-dimension cover and interspersed sections of eye-catching comic book artwork. The cliffhanger ending will leave you holding your breath for the sequel, Havoc, due in October 2010.
War for the Oaks by Emma Bull, 2001, Orb Books, originally published 1987 (Fantasy)
Eddi McCandry is having a bad night. She broke up with her boyfriend, quit her band, and is being chased through downtown Minneapolis by a man in black and a very big dog. Cornered at last, Eddi is stunned to discover that the man and the dog are one and the same. The fellow is a phouka, a shape-shifting magical being, and he has just drafted Eddi into an age-old war between two dueling branches of faerie folk. The Seelie Court needs Eddi, a mortal, to bring balance to their battle with the dark Unseelie Court. Feisty and fiercely independent, Eddi has zero interest in being some pixie’s pawn, but she doesn’t have a choice—now that she’s been singled out by one faerie court, the sinister fey of the other will be after her in full force. The phouka—an infuriating, dashing trickster—is appointed Eddi’s guardian and guide through the magical realm now open to her. Overwhelmed, Eddi grounds herself in her passion for music. She starts another band and to her surprise, her recently acquired affinity for magic produces the best sound she’s ever played—with a bit of help from her new bandmates. The fey have been infiltrating the human world for ages, and boy, can they play some mean rock and roll. The band (with the grinning phouka as roadie) begins to garner some serious hype, but there’s still a battle between the forces of good and evil to win, and Eddi is about to become the center of some very dangerous attention. Grounded in the neighborhoods of the Twin Cities and brimming with as much rock and roll as magic, War for the Oaks is an urban fantasy cult classic that still packs a punch more than twenty years after its original publication.
Greywalker by Kat Richardson, 2006, Roc Books (Fantasy/ Mystery)
Greywalker begins with Seattle-based private detective Harper Blaine getting the beating of a lifetime when a routine investigation leads to an unexpectedly bad end. Then, she dies—for two minutes. Resuscitated and recovering in the hospital, Harper is eager to put this incident behind her and get back to work. That, of course, is easier said than done. Because Harper begins experiencing strange phenomena—a foggy grey mist on the edges of her vision, ghostly shapes moving around her, snarling shadows that dodge and lunge. When she meets a married couple who have experience investigating the paranormal, Harper finally gets some answers. Her temporary death and her return to life have made her a Greywalker—someone able to move between the everyday world and the Grey, a shadowy realm halfway between life and death inhabited by ghosts, vampires, necromancers, and monsters. Harper is anything but thrilled by this startling revelation, but the Grey isn’t going away and soon her normal cases—finding a missing college student, tracking down a family heirloom—begin to show disturbing and dangerous signs of the paranormal. Harper is going to have to push her natural skepticism aside and accept her new abilities if she wants to solve her cases—and stay alive. Populated by intriguing characters both human and supernatural and led by a gutsy, sarcastic, wholly likeable heroine, Greywalker is a fantasy on par with Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries starring Sookie Stackhouse and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files featuring wizard-detective Harry Dresden. With Greywalker, author Kat Richardson pulls all the stops and pens a fast-paced, monster-packed novel (the first in a series) that is an exciting blend of hard-boiled detective mystery and gritty urban fantasy.
The Greywalker Series by Kat Richardson
The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue, 2006, Doubleday Books (Fiction/ Fantasy)
In the woods behind seven-year-old Henry Day’s house, there is another world. Hobgoblins, or changelings, inhabit the country wilderness; they are fairy-like sprites that kidnap children and leave one of their own behind. This is destined to be Henry’s fate. Nabbed from his hiding spot in the forest one day, the boy Henry is transformed into a fairy and renamed Aniday. Forever trapped in a child’s body, Aniday learns the woodsy brand of stealthy magic that ensures the survival of the wild little band. The changeling who takes his place becomes human and lives out his life as Henry Day, identical in every way to the original boy save for a new prodigious talent at the piano. As the now-human Henry and the new hobgoblin Aniday mature, they are both haunted by the past. Bookish Aniday, using stolen scraps of paper and found pencil stubs, keeps track of his new life amongst the changelings and clings to fading memories of his first family. Henry settles into the grooves of modern American life in the 1960s, but he is plagued by recollections even more distant—his own original human life, from way back before his wild fairy days, back when he was a human boy who was replaced by a changeling and became one himself in turn. As the lives of Henry Day and Aniday separate and twist and turn to collide once more, author Keith Donohue relates the cycle of human to changeling and back again with an eerie precision that is anchored in everyday details. Haunting and strange, The Stolen Child will make readers firmly believe in the ageless children of the woods—and maybe even question their own true identities and histories.
Little, Big by John Crowley, 2006, Harper Perennial, originally published 1981 (Literary Fiction/ Fantasy)
When anonymous Midwestern city boy Smoky Barnable locks eyes with long tall Daily Alice Drinkwater, it is love at first sight. Following a strange but quaint set of instructions (eat food that is made not bought; pack a suit that is old not new), Smoky walks to Edgewood—not found on any map—to marry Alice, live in the rambling Drinkwater house that is built in every style, and become part of this singular family’s history. The house was designed by great-grandfather John Drinkwater, an eccentric architect and author with a theory about concentric worlds within worlds. Daily Alice and her sister Sophie spent their childhood frolicking with Uncle Auberon, a man who devoted his life to capturing photographic evidence of the elusive “they” who dwell in the wilderness that surrounds the family home. Two of the Drinkwater children, Alice’s son and Sophie’s daughter, leave the ancestral home to embark on big, strange, wondrous adventures in the big city and in the wild wild wood. And enigmatic Aunt Cloud endlessly consults her much-sought-after deck of cards and traces the Drinkwaters’ progress through the unending story of life. The Drinkwaters are without doubt a magical family, and Little, Big is without doubt a fantasy novel of unparalleled beauty and style. Author John Crowley writes a lyrical prose as he tells the fanciful, whimsical saga of this almost mythical family and the various magical boundaries, fairy realms, and other-worlds that its members encounter and inhabit. Full of moments of wonder, clarity, and mystery, Little, Big is a fine, graceful, wandering fantasy story that you’ll want to read again and again and linger over and make last as long as you possibly can.
Note: Other previously reviewed books that feature ordinary people tumbling into extraordinary magical realms include Philip Pullman’s utterly fantastic and all-absorbing His Dark Materials trilogy; Summerland, Michael Chabon’s adventure-filled tribute to magic, mythology, and the great game of baseball; yet another Neil Gaiman story, Stardust, with a fairy tale twist; The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly, an eerie fantasy about a young boy lost in a strange land; and that timeless classic The Neverending Story by Michael Ende.