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One of the things about writing any sort of fiction, and I feel like this especially true with many genres of fiction, is that there are sort of established conventions and tropes. Now I want to say right off I think that tropes and cliches are not bad things because they are well used for a reason. But even with that they can get a little bit predictable and stale. I've been playing a game called Horizon Zero Dawn which is sort of post-apocalyptic fantasy. Without getting too detailed its story is more or less your classic heroic journey to save the world, but with a really interesting sci-fi twist to it.  For instance, instead of the Gods you instead have these ultra-advanced AIs who fill a similar role as uber powerful plot devices. 

 

So here's the question I have for all y'all. What is your favorite trope or convention and what do you think was your favorite way you've seen it adapted or reimagined? 

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I'm always fascinated by what happens after a trope is resolved. The band of adventurers defeats the villain and saves the kingdom. What happens next? (See The Afterward by E.K. Johnston). Kids go through a mirror or a wardrobe and end up in a magical world, but then get spat back into their usual lives. What happens next? (See Wayward Children by Seanan McGuire or A Tyranny of Queens by Foz Meadows). This sort of thing. 

Also, Chosen Ones. What if the Chosen One refuses to save the world? (One of my friends still hasn't published her wonderful book on the subject, but I know she will one day). What if the story isn't about the Chosen One at all, what if it's about their parents or their sibling or their significant other? What if the story is about whoever (or whatever) chooses the Chosen Ones? What if the story about a Chosen One who wants to stop being Chosen and break free to live their own life without the constraints of destiny, and that's the point of whatever quest they undertake? I have no real examples, but a lot of ideas. 

 

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I love seeing twisted fairy tale tropes. Just how a step-mother being seen as evil and jealous but actually caring greatly for her step-daughter could change the story, the dashing Prince not being the good guy.

Once example was in a retelling of Diamonds and Toad that I honestly think I may have made up in a fever dream because I can't find a hint of it anywhere, where the gift the magic fairy gives the "good" sister puts her in a life of misery and the curse she gives the "bad" sister allows her to manipulate people into getting what she wants. Everything works out fine in the end, of course. But just seeing tropes that people take for granted and turning them on their heads is very fun.

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On 6/24/2019 at 2:22 AM, Sam said:

Kids go through a mirror or a wardrobe and end up in a magical world, but then get spat back into their usual lives. What happens next? (See Wayward Children by Seanan McGuire or A Tyranny of Queens by Foz Meadows). This sort of thing. 

Guy Gavriel Kay has some of that in his Fionavar Tapestry, though they are adults, not kids. That's something I like too, taking a common trope and extrapolating to the extreme of it. Remove the suspension of disbelief, take silly tropes seriously, take them with all their consequences, play them straight and hard. I'm blanking on any examples, but I know they are out there.

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I gotta say, I still like Portal fantasies, always have. I'm very sad public opinion turned against them (mostly due to market over-saturation) because I always thought they were fascinating. Take a modern, normal person from our world, drop them in another, and see how they react. It was like a fictional version of a social experiment.

...in some cases the kinds Nazis might do, but still, always fascinating.

I think one of my favorite subversion of this was The Catsworld Portal by Shirley Rosseau Murphy. The "portal" is a gateway between upper earth and a hollow earth-type environment, and instead of slapping a normal human though it to go below-ground, instead we follow one of it's denizens as she tries to adjust to our world. Also unlike other portal fantasies, our traveler doesn't slip through one way and stay until the end of her adventure/can never return, instead there's quite a bit of coming and going by everyone involved. Seeing our world through the eyes of a stranger, watching her juggle the needs and worries of both worlds made for quite a good read. It didn't hurt to see the politics of one land spilling into the other, either.

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I gotta say, I still like Portal fantasies, always have. I'm very sad public opinion turned against them (mostly due to market over-saturation) because I always thought they were fascinating. Take a modern, normal person from our world, drop them in another, and see how they react. It was like a fictional version of a social experiment.

I don't think portal fantasy has gone anywhere in the place it's most comfortable -- middle grade, introducing children to new worlds of fantasy by bringing them along with characters they can already identify with. It bleeds a little into early YA too, but as an adult genre it's definitely been out of vogue, and for a really long time.

I blame Stephen R. Donaldson. To the extent that all of literature is an ongoing debate between every author that has lived and ever will, his Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever seem to have proved an irrefutable closing statement on the portal subgenre. They were both a culmination of the storytelling style and a condemnation of the naivety and childishness that subgenre represented. The series is generally held to have deeply impacted the next twenty years of major fantasy authors and shepherded in the grimdark era of fantasy that we've been living with for some time now, all while not being widely known or loved by readers in general. I think we're at a far enough remove now that we can see it start to come back, and I have seen some of the shadow come off of the genre in general, so I'm hopeful. I think it will take writers who have something really meaningful to say, though, that can only be said with portal fantasy.

Until then, though, don't think for a minute the kids don't have it still. My eldest daughter especially reads tons of the stuff, and some of it seems very interesting. They're the ones who need it most, and I suspect it will always be there for them.

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On 7/3/2019 at 7:54 AM, jdvollans said:

I don't think portal fantasy has gone anywhere in the place it's most comfortable -- middle grade, introducing children to new worlds of fantasy by bringing them along with characters they can already identify with. It bleeds a little into early YA too, but as an adult genre it's definitely been out of vogue, and for a really long time.

I blame Stephen R. Donaldson. To the extent that all of literature is an ongoing debate between every author that has lived and ever will, his Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever seem to have proved an irrefutable closing statement on the portal subgenre. They were both a culmination of the storytelling style and a condemnation of the naivety and childishness that subgenre represented. The series is generally held to have deeply impacted the next twenty years of major fantasy authors and shepherded in the grimdark era of fantasy that we've been living with for some time now, all while not being widely known or loved by readers in general. I think we're at a far enough remove now that we can see it start to come back, and I have seen some of the shadow come off of the genre in general, so I'm hopeful. I think it will take writers who have something really meaningful to say, though, that can only be said with portal fantasy.

Until then, though, don't think for a minute the kids don't have it still. My eldest daughter especially reads tons of the stuff, and some of it seems very interesting. They're the ones who need it most, and I suspect it will always be there for them.

I would argue portal fantasies being better for children. Some of the most adult fantasy works I've read have involved them, such as Witch World by Andre Norton, Minerva Wakes by Holly Lisle, The Interior Life by Katherine Blake, Kindred by Octavia Butler, or more modern pieces like The Child Thief by Brom or Imajica by Clive Barker. One could even argue that the rampantly popular Dark Tower by Stephen King is a portal fantasy since most of the elements are there. Admittedly, Portal fantasies have also been some of the most comedic series I've read, which is where I believe it went off the rails. The 80s were actually huge on comedic fantasy, to the point the market sometimes seemed stuffed with them, and easy comedic value is always the "fish out of water" scenario, which made pairing comedies with Portal fantasies a natural.

Honestly, I don't think that helped either subgenre any, especially when the whole market oversaturation thing kicked in.

But at it's base, a portal fantasy in no more foolish or childish than any sci-fi where a modern human time travels or winds up on an alien planet. It's really all in what you bring to the story.

These days Urban Fantasy has often taken on the more serious aspects of portal fantasies. Though not in every book, it often has the same elements; the fish-out-of-water (a magician trying to get by in a normal world or visa-versa), the "alternative" landscape (a hidden society playing by different rules), the exploration of the contrasting cultures, and, of course, the whole saving-the-world/s aspect. They aren't exact, and of course Urban Fantasy has grown it's own subgenre offshoots as well, but the fact that it co-opted many of the more adult elements of the Portal fantasy tells me that there is still very much an adult interest in these elements.

As for Donaldson and his Thomas Covenant series.....ugh.

Full disclosure, I gave it a try but could never make it much past the why-the-fvck-is-it-even-there rape scene, nor follow the adventures of an unrepentant, selfish, self-pitying, whiny little rapist. He went far beyond anti-hero and into the realm of "oh shit, I'm rooting for the bad guy!" In a time when I read every book cover to cover no matter how bad they were, this series was one of the few that I walked away from for having just one of the most awful main characters I've ever read (and I say this as someone who often prefers anti-heroes with questionable morals). Frankly, I'm not even sure those books could be published today.

That said, I am not very impressed with the man, his writing (which was decent but never amazing; he was just really good with action and cinematics), or any influence he had on fantasy (even while admitting that yes, he had an influence). In fact, I'd argue strongly that he was not the influence that gave birth to the books we now classify as "grimdark." For one thing, those books have always been around, such as the Elric series by Michael Moorcock and the Conan series (by lots of folk, apparently), just to mention a couple of famous ones. There has never been a time where every fantasy story led to brightness and hope, not even in fairy tales. It's just, at some point people decided they wanted to classify those tales differently for...some reason or another. Again, probably marketing. But I can say that I recall when his Covenant books were much more popular than they are now and, if the term "grimdark" even existed it wasn't in use, much less in use to describe his books.

Or any books.

Grimdark is a modern term, coined from Warhammer which came out in 1987, a full decade after his first Covenant book hit the shelves (and is itself a subgenre of the subgenre "dark fantasy"). It was somewhere around then the term started being used, though again it wasn't in vast use until somewhere in the 2000s (in fact, I don't recall seeing it until sometime after 2010 but that may not be saying much), at which point people looked back and started reclassifying his novels into the new category. I don't even recall him being classified as "dark fantasy" back in the day; he was always epic fantasy since his books had things in common with that genre--the hero predestined to take down the Big Bad, the epic journey, etc. etc. In fact, one of his heaviest influences is Tolkien, which is easy to see in the structure of his stories.

As for him killing the Portal fantasy? Perhaps, but we still had a good decade more of it after his initial book. If anything, I'd say he helped spur the Portal fantasy to popularity with the wild success of his series since they weren't as ubiquitous before that. And I have serious doubts he would set out to try to mock or condemn a subgenre using a leprous main character, considering he worked as a medical missionary with lepers and a huge crux of his main character's bitterness was based around the rejection of his family and friends. Helping people with that disease seems to have been important to him, and I suspect he wanted to give them a voice in his stories--even if he did make some seriously poor decisions while making the attempt.

If he ever condemned that subgenre it it had to be in his later offerings, at which point I'd wonder if he was sour on the whole genre or just sour because he was locked into writing a series he couldn't escape from. Considering his second Covenant series was called out by critics as "repetitious" of the first (basically, the first series plotline jammed into series two), I'd lean towards the latter myself; that's usually a sure sign of an author "phoning it in." Plus it was well known how tightly his publishing company controlled him (see the disagreement about what name he was to write mystery novels under--he hated having a pen name but was forced to  use one anyway). I'm betting his publishers wanted a surefire sale and he had no choice but to make a series two, at which point I could see him being a bit bitter.

That said, yes, I've seen a few whispers of the portal fantasy making a rebound, but there is still a lot of snobbery and mockery associated with it, and that includes from publishers. I think it'll still be at least another decade (at minimum) before they make any sort of regular appearances outside novels aimed at children, which I think is a loss. Zombie novels, vampire novels, omniscient viewpoint, portal fantasies, using adverbs, and all the other weird literary snobbery that people flout as writing rules (never do this!) aren't the issue. In fact, they're never the issue. The issue is often that we are served subpar goods in the hopes of more money going into the pockets of CEOs and shareholders and we get tired of diets of junk food and crap, but instead of blaming poor publishing practices, we blame the books. I don't mind there being a popular market (or the attempt to make money), but I do mind how cowardly and risk-adverse publishing companies have become, to the detriment of literature and future writers alike.

But that's a rant for another day. 🙂 Also, hi, I overthink things. A LOT. Glad to meetcha! 😅

 

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1 hour ago, katfireblade said:

-snipped-

 

I actually don't disagree with most of your points, and I'm no great fan of Donaldson myself. The whole rape thing is a big part of that, and I bring it up again and again -- fantasy is a very unfortunately rapey genre, and the 'classic' era of spec is full of weird sex shit that makes me very uncomfortable. One day I'll write up my treatise on the subject for the forum. It's extensive.

I definitely don't think portal is only for children, only that it lives a very comfortable life in children's literature, and that children appreciate it on its own merits without twists or subversions. I also agree that urban fantasy has done a lot to displace it, and I hadn't really thought about that, and altogether I don't have a problem with it, I think. I also think that rather than suggesting that there's still an appetite for portal fantasy, though, that it suggests why portal fantasy might be on the outs: readers are less interested in escaping to a magical world than they are in having our world be a little more magical. It might be a subtle distinction, and I might have changed my mind on Donaldson entirely, and suggest that J.K. Rowling put the nail in portal fantasy, when she suggested to a pretty much unprecedented genre audience that magic might be a little closer than Narnia. The north of England may suffice.

I also didn't mean to suggest that Donaldson invented grimdark, or that the term was in use then. I'm familiar with its origin, though its current use is pretty disconnected from Warhammer, which is actually a pretty bright and colorful game that tends to lose any serious gravity as soon as the Orcs get involved. It's not actually a subgenre of dark fantasy though -- dark fantasy is a cross-genre of both horror and fantasy, and is generally used to describe stuff like Clive Barker's, whose Imajica you mentioned but whose Weaveworld and Abarat novels are also pretty relevant. Dark portal fantasy may still, in fact, be a rich vein very much worth tapping, but which is also very much a subversion of what most people are asking for with portal fantasy.

Tangent there aside, what I meant was only that Donaldson had a clear effect, frequently expressed by authors and critics, on the books we generally think of as grimdark now, authors like Martin, Cook, Erickson, Goodkind (who is worse than Donaldson.)

There may also be a disconnect between author intent and what people actually embraced the Covenant books over, which was the moral ambiguity of the protagonist, the less than positive effect he had on the world and characters around him, and the general lack of optimism found in the series. Maybe Donaldson didn't intend it to come across that way, but it's how the books were read, and a certain subset of future authors ate it up.

 

The one thing I've got to disagree with you on is this: as far as I can see, traditional publishers have never been less risk averse than they are right now*. The pop fiction exists in abundance, but that fact - there are so many books being published now - has cushioned a lot of high risk books, and allowed for some pretty major coups. For the first time in history, it's really not an either/or problem. There's never going to be a point where everything gets picked up for publication, and personal tastes of editors will always come into play, but I read an awful lot, and the way I'm seeing it, a lot of the stuff I'm seeing would not have gotten a second look before the last few years. I think the publishing industry, for the most part**, is in really great shape.

 

 

* YA twitter shows the obvious counterfactual to this.

** See previous note.

 

Anyways, hi! I also overthink things a lot.

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7 hours ago, jdvollans said:

<snipped>

The one thing I've got to disagree with you on is this: as far as I can see, traditional publishers have never been less risk averse than they are right now*. The pop fiction exists in abundance, but that fact - there are so many books being published now - has cushioned a lot of high risk books, and allowed for some pretty major coups. For the first time in history, it's really not an either/or problem. There's never going to be a point where everything gets picked up for publication, and personal tastes of editors will always come into play, but I read an awful lot, and the way I'm seeing it, a lot of the stuff I'm seeing would not have gotten a second look before the last few years. I think the publishing industry, for the most part**, is in really great shape.

 

* YA twitter shows the obvious counterfactual to this.

** See previous note.

 

Anyways, hi! I also overthink things a lot.

 

So basically we're saying the same thing in different words? Heh. I can get behind that.

 

I feel I should clarify "risk adverse," though.

In the past a solo agent and/or editor could find a manuscript they loved and champion the author who wrote it. This was a power they had, to take a virtual unknown and throw weight behind them, and it's how many of our most acclaimed authors got their start. Publishing companies, once they decided to take that chance, also gave the author support, helping them with everything from editing their book to advertising it--authors got a full package deal when they were picked up.

They were paid a goodly sum, too.

That's no longer how the process works.

Now a prospective author has more hoops to jump than just getting out of the slush pile.

First, just to make it out of the slush pile, a manuscript will be sent to the marketing department with one simple question; Can you market this? This is before anyone at the publishing house even reads the bloody thing. If the answer is no, that manuscript is dead in the water, no matter how good it is.

Now let me make a case for why this is atrociously stupid.

Marketers don't look at long term goals but simply short term profits. They don't look at quality, simply marketability. And their job is not to sell to as many people as possible, but to sell to sharply defined segments of people, like "boys ages 12-15" or "stay-at-home-moms." If those markets shift, often they will not move with those changes, but will instead can the product, even if the product is doing well. They'll also kill a product--including successful ones--if they don't know how to market to a certain segment. And while the links go to TV shows, the publishing world is beset by this behavior as well, such as having inappropriately feminized book covers for women authors or that speech by Suzanne Brockmann ranting at the industry for forcing her to remove gay characters from her books so they'd "sell better."

Now, imagine a dystopian book like The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood having to jump this hoop. It's not that it couldn't happen, but if Atwood was an unpublished author and she tried to get that book published today, what percentage chance do you think she'd have of making it?

The second hoop new authors have to jump is a committee.

Now, take Atwood's book again. The marketing department lost their minds and said yes to this book, so a committee of anywhere between 5-10 people must now unanimously (or at least, overwhelming majority) agree to publish this biting, scathing, terrifying look at America's worst side. Her chances of getting her book past this point?

And when you're deciding that answer, keep in mind the last time you got a group of people to become one mind about a book, a movie, a video game, or really any piece of media. You get 10 people in a room and ask them if they liked a book and why or why not, chances are you'll get 11 different answers. And ask them again that afternoon and several of those answers will have changed. So what are the chances for any new author, much less someone who writes like Atwood, getting these diverse people to agree on their highly controversial book?

Hard to imagine?

But now imagine instead that they're deciding the fate of an urban fantasy novel replete with fast action, sexy werewolves, and some form of mage, one that's no more challenging than your basic beach read--a lot of fun, but about as threatening as a newborn kitten. You think that'll jump those hoops a bit more easily?

If we wonder why the market gets glutted with pulp reads while books that have a lot to say seem a bit light on the ground, those two recent changes (within the last 2-3 decades) can explain a lot of that.

And from there the uphill battle gets even worse.

Even after being accepted, unlike the past, now authors don't get much help from publishing companies at all.

Editing any and all books accepted by a publishing company used to be a no-brainer--after all, every book needs a good spit-and-polish by a second set of eyes. But these days, unless you're an established "rock star" author, chances are you'll have to edit your own book. But not all authors have the skills to do this well--dyslexics, people with English as a second language, or even just the regular Joe. It used to be a joke in writing circles that no author could spell, a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment that writers weren't remotely perfect when it came to things like grammar or tightening up a story or even catching stupid and easy spelling errors. But now they'd better be experts, or be prepared to pay a lot of money out-of-pocket to pay for one, because the editing departments have been decimated and editors as we have traditionally known them have largely vanished.

And those authors who can't do a credible job but get published anyway? Well, they lose readers. They don't get a second chance to improve their craft no matter how good their stories actually are.

If you ever want to try an interesting experiment, try reading about 10 books published in the 1980s or earlier back to back (not necessarily from well known authors)--long enough to get used to the editing style of the time and start to expect it--then read something published today that is not from a "rock star" author. The difference is like a shock to the system.

And even if they jump that hoop, most fall down with marketing.

This, again, was something publishing companies used to do for every new author. Now it's up to the author themselves. This is insane--what other industry asks an employee to also take on extra duties as a marketer without paying them to do that job? Answer; none. Not to mention, it takes a certain personality type to sit in a room, hour after hour, day after endless day, working in complete isolation. The personalities that take to this working environment the easiest are also often the worst possible people you could ask to do a sales job. Not to mention, many have no practice at it, and even those that do may be unfamiliar with the book market and not know how to navigate it. Sure, they can read a book and try what it suggests, but again, no practice. And when has following the instructions in a book ever been better than having a certified expert on hand to do a job they specialize in?

And if they can't hit the ground running on a job they never trained to do, aren't getting paid for, and are temperamentally unsuited for?

Oh, and may not even have time for if they also still have a day job, which they most likely do.

Well, if you can't do it go eff yourself kid, because we won't take a chance publishing you twice. Your career is over.

And the final hoop is directly related to that day job--authors no longer get paid squat for their work.

To illustrate the difference, in 1985 an author might receive $50,000 for a two or three book contract. Adjusted for inflation, that would equate to about $120,000 today. Keep in mind, the average yearly wage in 1985 was about $16,800, so $50,000 could feasibly support a person for three years at a book a year, and that's not even taking into account any extra the royalties might net the author. These days the average book contract for one book book is...around $5000 to $15,000. Even at it's highest rate it's less than one book was worth in 1985. At this point writers are losing money.

In fact, most of our classic authors, the ones we love, the ones we hold up as examples of greatness, couldn't have made it in our current literary market even if they were published. As it is, many popular authors who  once make a successful living on their writing alone have been forced to take day jobs. And our modern authors are having the same issue--every second spent on a day job, or two, or even three is less time they have to write. One major thing going wrong--medical bills, student debt, the cost of a relative's funeral, a car crash that totals their car--and their writing career may effectively end due to the need to survive.

Can you imagine Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, or Anne McCaffrey having to quit writing after two published books because they need to pay bills and they couldn't make a living wage writing? Doesn't it just boggle the mind how many modern day Bradburys and Le Guins and McCaffreys are not on the shelves and never will be because of the same thing?

All of this is because publishing companies are now set on running their business in the manner all other businesses are run--with the emphasis of profit over product. They genuinely don't care if the product is good, so long as profits keep rolling in.

Now, it's not all bad--in the pursuit of said profit there have been some positive changes, like the new cross-genre revolution where books are no longer so rigidly defined into categories. It is an incredibly good time to color outside the genre lines, which has been nothing but a boon.

But it is a terrible time to have anything deeper to say than "incest can be sexy, too" and "action sequences make for fun reading."

Hence why I called the publishing industry "risk adverse." I meant that they are risk adverse when it comes to funding the very arts they sell or putting out books that challenge readers' world views or have anything truly deep to say. And the problem is only getting worse as more and more publishing houses merge. The problem hasn't just been noticed by me, either. Plus it's not just happening here, you can find articles coming out of Canada, France, and the UK saying the same thing. There's probably more I haven't yet found.

And if things keep up this way something will have to give. I'm terrified that it will be books themselves and the authors that write them.

But, ya know, maybe e-pub will get it's shit together and become a much more viable alternative than it is now (and even now it's pretty danged good). I mean, if authors are doing all the work on their books anyway, the next logical step is eventually going to be to cut out the middleman publishing houses altogether. But that's only going to draw more people when self-publishing shakes off the stink of "amateur," something it hasn't quite managed to do yet.

....aaand I've totally hijacked this thread, haven't I?

Though if we are talking about writing tropes I hate, one truly is blaming the author for the (often deliberate) failures of the publishing companies meant to protect and help them, and the new adage that you write for love of the art, not money. The latter especially is as much science-fiction as any published book and is a nasty adage that just needs to die already. 😕

 

 

 

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On 7/4/2019 at 3:46 PM, katfireblade said:

But at it's base, a portal fantasy in no more foolish or childish than any sci-fi where a modern human time travels or winds up on an alien planet. It's really all in what you bring to the story.

That's a very good way of looking at it.

That said, I think "portal fantasy" turns some people off because of the formula commonly attached to it. One exemplar of this basic formula that I remember was a movie I saw as a teenager about some white American high-school boy who ended up in ancient China. It was a coming-of-age story where he tagged along with a bunch of heroic martial artists (one of them played by Jackie Chan, of course) and helped them save the land from the bad guy.

Spoiler

Also, he fell in love with the sole female martial artist, with whom he would reunite even after he returned to his own time and place.

Another movie I saw with almost this exact same formula was the animated Flight of Dragons. The fantasy land this time was more traditional medieval European fantasy, but it was still about a young modern-day dude who landed in this realm and saved the day with the help of local heroes and wizards.

Spoiler

He too found a love interest in this fantasy realm, and he too reunited with her even after returning to his own time and place.

Point being, that's the formula most people associate with portal fantasy. Young dude from the modern day finds himself in another world, he becomes the hero saving the world from a bad guy, and then returns home.

Spoiler

And he might find his true love in both worlds while he's at it.

Admittedly, that's the sort of adventurous fantasy many young men find appealing at a gut level, for very understandable reasons. I myself would be lying if I hadn't felt the same way myself in my youth. But formulas like that aren't going to get you praise for suspenseful novelty in storytelling.

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