“He assumed the unthinkable had happened – that he had died (unfortunately… he was right.)”
Tom Woolberson and the School for Watchers by K.J. Brookes is a supernatural fantasy series that will charm you with its world and characters, enrich your day with its knowledge and wonder, and shock you with the true-to-life darkness that exists within us all.
When Tom Woolberson awakens standing in a strange marshland with no recollection of how he got there, the reality of his own death wasn’t the first thing that crossed his mind as an explanation. Having previously been enraptured by a solo gaming session in his bedroom on his Xbox, the idea of a passenger plane crashing into his home and instantly cutting his time on Earth short hadn’t been on his list of concerns.
But the truth of his own death is revealed to him, along with his destiny at St. Michael’s School for Watchers. After befriending the wardrobe-eccentric Mary and care-free Finn, he quickly learns that the historic teachers and angelic heads of houses may yet hide mysteries that even the library of St. Michaels’ won’t easily reveal.
Brookes does a great job of doing some hard worldbuilding in the prose, describing the school and its surroundings in detail without getting bogged down with unnecessary background information at inopportune moments. It’s a careful balance that he navigates like a seasoned tightrope acrobat, giving us enough to wet our palette and feel like we’re experiencing the world first-hand, but not so much that a reader would be tempted to skim or skip passages.
There’s clearly been research done behind the scenes on Christian lore, but it doesn’t come across as a lecture or a sermon. There’s nothing presented that doesn’t have a purpose in the story. Brookes was able to trim the fat from every reference down to its bare necessities—paramount in any book that references this many historical and literary aspects. Too often authors can become inundated in the minutia of history and neglect the pacing needs of a book.
I very much enjoyed the cameos from historical figures, such as Newton, Wilde, and others (who I won’t spoil for you, you’ll just have to read for yourself!) There are tidbits on science, psychology, and even music and art history sprinkled throughout the book. It was a pleasure just to experience one author’s interpretation of what it would be like to meet these giants of history.
I also found it refreshing that Brookes approaches the big question of life after death in the context of just one religion without it seeming preachy or universal. Though it does make use of very specific lore, it doesn’t necessitate that the lore be followed to exact measure for a positive outcome. It feels like evil has less to do with the lore of Christianity, and more to do with basic human morality. There’s denouncement of evils such as pride and envy, stealing and murder, but not a condemnation of things like homosexuality (case in point: Wilde made it into Heaven.) This may yet change in future books, but I found it an interesting approach so far.
Should You Read It:
As always, please review the Trigger Warnings below if you have concerns on whether this book would be right for you.
Tom Woolberson and the School for Watchers is a hard book to categorize. It doesn’t quite fit in the typical mold of magical boarding school fiction, nor does it fit in the genre of paranormal or supernatural fantasy. In some ways it feels like it is to Christianity what the Percy Jackson series is to Greek Mythology—an integration of the lore into modern culture—but the equivalency isn’t quite right there either.
It’s a bit of an odd one, and I think the right reader will see that as a highlight rather than a detriment. It has religious context and is based on painstaking research, but I wouldn’t categorize it as a religious book. In truth, some more fundamentalist Christians or Catholics may dislike it, because while the lore is researched it’s approached as malleable, taking liberties to fit it within the context of the story (as all stories do in some way.) But I think others may yet see it as a way to explore their faith in a different light, and enjoy the excitement and mystery of the book itself.
Ultimately, the ideal audience would be those who have a love for learning and an open mind. It’s not meant to be read as a manual for spiritual practice, but as an enjoyable, fantastical mystery that just happens to take place in the context of a religion that is often misrepresented. It’s a new take on old stories, and I’m interested to see where Brookes takes Tom Woolberson next.
Spark Level: I rated Tom Woolberson and the School for Watchers as spark level Torch. It serves as a reminder that we all carry within us the potential for darkness and sin, and the light to shatter the emptiness around us.
Trigger Warnings: Murder and torture.
(Disclaimer: I received an Advanced Reader Copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)