Book Review: Tom Woolberson and the School for Watchers

“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.

The Good:

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.)

Author Interview: K.J. Brookes

Harry Potter defined the genre of magical boarding schools for generations to come, instilling a love of reading into young minds and cementing a lasting love in the hearts of Millennials. Because of this, it’s hard for an author to dip their toes in the boarding school genre in fantasy without being compared to and measured against Rowling and the beast of a story she created.

But with Tom Woolberson and the School for Watchers, rather than attempt to recreate the success of a brand that’s still active, K.J. Brookes approaches a magical boarding school from a completely different direction.

For one, the main character is already dead. 

I also don’t remember Hogwarts being set in Heaven.

With such an unusual premise, and with the backing of SRL Publishing (who I’ve already had good reading experiences with, see my Cherrington Academy review) I had to read it for myself. I was also lucky enough to snag some time from the author to chat about the series, his writing inspirations, and get the low-down on future releases.

(You can also read my review of Tom Woolberson and the School for Watchers here.)

Tell us a bit about yourself:

I’m 34 and I live in Perth with my Wife and our dog, George. When I’m not working I like to read and watch television. Right now I’m reading A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway and watching The Haunting of Bly Manor on Netflix.

Tell us about your novel/series:

The Tom Woolberson series is about a fifteen-year-old boy who’s killed when a passenger plane crashes into his house. Now good and dead, he finds himself at St Michael’s School for Watchers (a school run by angels for the descendants of Michael).

What is your favourite novel and has it inspired you to write? How?

My favourite novel is IT by Stephen King. It was in fact this novel which inspired me to write in the first place and you will find references to IT in my novel, Tom Woolberson. It was Stephen King’s profound sense of place that captured me and inspired me to create my own world and build my own characters in it.

What are some key takeaways you’re hoping readers take from the book?

In Tom Woolberson there’s a lot of learning (biblical, historical or otherwise). I’m hoping that whoever reads my novel might learn a thing or two and remember where they first learned it.

With a book focused on learning, what sort of research was involved in your process, and was that something you enjoyed or dreaded?

A lot of it was stuff I’d picked up over the years, but the biblical stuff, I’m not ashamed to say, I researched diligently on the internet. I’ve never really been a super religious person but I found it interesting researching biblical passages and people/beings featured in the bible to form the basis for my characters. The book also teaches about history as there’s some notable people from the past, as professors at the school.

What is different about your novel?

While there’s been books about boarding schools before (the most obvious being Harry Potter), I don’t think there’s ever been one set in Heaven.

 What are your plans for future novels?

I want to write a 2nd and 3rd Tom Woolberson book. I also plan to write more in other genres as well. One of my favourite genres to write in is the thriller genre. My new book, Little Dark One, will be released next year.

Is there anything more you can tell us about your new book, Little Dark One?

I’d say it’s the polar opposite of Tom Woolberson and I definitely wouldn’t recommend it to the same reader base. It’s dark, bleak and a little untoward, exploring topics some people might find offensive. It’s being published, again with SRL, summer 2021.

What is it about thrillers that makes you enjoy writing them so much?

Real life is a lot easier to write than fantasy because I’ve lived it. With fantasy you don’t just have to create the characters but also the world that they live in and the rules that govern that world, and that was the case with Tom Woolberson. Thrillers, on the other hand, are quick and exciting and that’s exactly how I like to write them.

What inspires you to write?

Good books and good movies.

What do you enjoy about publishing? And what do you struggle with?

The part I enjoy most about publishing is working with artists and the publisher to create the image for the front cover. The part I struggle with is proofreading (so many typos!)

What has been your greatest struggle writing and how would you inspire others to overcome it?

My greatest struggle is lack of inspiration. When I’m inspired I can write for hours, even days on end. When the inspiration runs out so does the writing. To overcome this, I put away the laptop and pick up a book. I would encourage others to do the same.

You mention reading as a cure for inspiration blocks. Are there certain books or genres that you find particularly helpful?

Lately I’ve found myself turning to the classics for inspiration: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Salinger and Shirley Jackson to name a few. When an author has defined their own style and it comes across in their writing I find that inspirational. It’s not always about the story for me but more about their choice of words and how they structure sentences. I know that sounds boring but I’m always on the lookout for the perfect sentence and I tend to come across it much more in the classics than I do in modern literature. Some of the books topping bestsellers lists these days I find too formulaic and contrived without any real skill or heart.

How can we purchase your book?

You can find Tom Woolberson on Amazon, Waterstones and Barnes and Noble.