I recently stumbled across the work of Christopher Nuttall in one of those coincidental ways in which good things often come about. I was looking at my author page on Amazon and noticed his name at the top of the “Customers Also Bought Items By” list. I usually check out those authors, since I assume that if readers who like my books like the books of another author, I have a good chance of liking that author’s work as well.
In this case I was not disappointed. I read the entire ten-book Schooled in Magic series in just a few days. I was so frustrated by the fact that there is not yet an eleventh book that I had to immediately started reading Nuttall’s Bookworm series to postpone the inevitable withdrawal pains.
What is it that makes Nuttall’s work stand out? To begin with, the main character, Emily, makes a strong impression. Sure, the idea of a modern person getting sucked into a fantasy world in which he or she has to overcome new perils while attempting to deal with psychological problems left over from his or her old life is hardly new; think about the Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books, for example. Hundreds of writers have done that in one way or another. That said, I can’t recall a character quite like Emily. I think part of what impresses me about her is that she is a female character done very realistically by a male author. Naturally, authors of either gender have to be able to write characters of both genders, but I’ve never been gutsy enough to make my main character female. Nuttall is, and based on my years of teaching at the high school level, I’d have to say he deals very realistically with problems many teenage girls face, such as body image issues. His treatment of bullying is also very realistic, though not as gender specific. Emily’s impulsiveness is handled very realistically as well, as is her tendency to be able to stand up for others better than she can for herself. There is no doubt readers will find Emily compelling, in part because we’ve all known people who share one or more of her characteristics.
Nor does Nuttall’s effective characterization stop with Emily. The various tutors at Whitehall, the school in which Emily finds herself, are each memorable in his or her own way. When there is a magic school in a fantasy, it’s hard not to compare it with Hogwarts, but, just as Emily is unique, so too are the instructors Nuttall has created. The Grandmaster is certainly not Dumbledore, though he is as powerful. His secrets are darker than Dumbledore’s, but you don’t discover what they are until you are several books into the series. There is really no equivalent to Snape, though all the instructors are pretty tough. As Emily observes more than once, they have to be, since a mistake with spell casting can easily be fatal, both to the magician and to others unfortunate enough to be nearby. My personal favorite is Lady Barb (introduced in one of the later books), whom Emily comes to see as a maternal figure, even though the woman is tough as nails and not always as sympathetic to Emily as Emily expects her to be.
Emily’s fellow students are equally varied and interesting. My favorite in the first book is Alassa, the spoiled princess of Zangaria who is a terrible bully, though she may be redeemable. Also especially well-written is Jade, the older male student who is the first guy to show any interest in Emily, forcing her to confront issues with men stemming from her psychologically abusive stepfather. Nuttall also does a good job of creating a diverse student population; in later books even a gorgon attends the school, despite the social biases against her kind. The interplay among the various teachers and students is complex but well worth following.
The settings are equally rich. Whitehall itself, with its dual role as school and as barrier keeping the necromancers from attacking the Allied Lands, is an interesting enough place all by itself, but Nuttall skillfully varies the setting in each book. Emily travels to Zangaria and spends time in the court of King Randor; she attends Mountaintop, a rival school, as a spy to see what underhanded things are going on there; she travels through more or less impoverished areas with Lady Barb to help the people who live there; she has to spend a little time in the Blighted Lands, areas destroyed by necromancers; she even finds herself trapped in the past. Each book revisits some old scenes but also offers completely new ones.
The plots are driven both by Emily’s attempts to overcome her personal issues, some of which are exacerbated in her new environment, and by the precarious situation in the Nameless World. Necromancers plot to conquer the world, while in the Allied Lands various factions jockey for position, sometimes completely ignoring the dangers that lurk nearby. Despite some modern conveniences, the world is basically medieval in its structure, which gives Emily plenty of ways to disrupt the existing system by introducing ideas derived from her own world. Inevitably, some people love her, but others see her as a threat and plot to destroy her. Her magical ability turns out to be considerable, but, not having grown up in that world, her ignorance sometimes creates unforeseen problems. With so many factors in play, Nuttall could keep this series going for a hundred books–and I hope he does! (He’s a very prolific writer, with I think fifty-nine books currently in print, some traditionally published and some self-published, so we have much reason to hope the series will keep going for a long time. Of course, he also has many other books to enjoy…)
Sound intriguing? A link to the first book in the series is below. If you’d like to learn more about Christopher Nuttall and his numerous projects, his website is here.