Review: The Queen's Colonial by Peter Watt, Macmillan

Liza Dezfouli

Another epic from the master storyteller.
Review: The Queen's Colonial by Peter Watt, Macmillan

Peter Watt's new novel The Queen’s Colonial.

 Peter Watt, author of a great number of adventure and military novels, has a huge following and fans know what to expect. And he delivers. 

The Queen’s Colonial is Watt's nineteenth novel and the first book of a new series set in the 1840s. Young Australian blacksmith, Ian Steele, dreams of serving Queen Victoria as a soldier. Ian is officer material, but he was born into a humble family; his mother was transported to the colonies for petty theft and his father had been a non-commissioned officer who fought at Waterloo. By chance, Ian meets the son of an aristocratic family, Samuel Forbes, who has been fighting in the Maori wars in New Zealand. Samuel had been sent to the colonies as a boy to stay with an uncle. The two men look sufficiently like each other to feasibly swap identities, an act which would enable Ian to travel to London in Forbes's place and accept a military commission. Which they do – a decision which sends Ian across the sea to London posing as Samuel Forbes. Will Ian manage to convince the ruthless and self-serving Sir Archibald Forbes that he is indeed his son?

When Ian takes his place as the second son of the powerful Forbes family, not everyone is convinced, Unexpectedly, Ian briefly finds love in London before heading off to the Crimea and the horrors of a prolonged battle in the Russian winter. 

Plot-wise, this latest from Watt is a page turner, full of detail and texture, with an historian’s eye for accuracy. Almost. There's a mention of the famous military hospital administrator and nurse Florence Nightingale (an early powerful advocate for reform in hygiene and sanitation) walking through a ward which smells of 'antiseptic cleaner'. But early forms of antiseptic (mostly carbolic acid) in cleaning products didn't come into use until the late 1860s, over a decade after the Crimean war. I can't help but think a woman writer might have checked this!

There’s a stiff formality to Watt’s prose style and he also breaks all the rules about telling rather than showing. The characters are rigid and one-dimensional, mostly expressing themselves in a self-conscious, wordy manner. If you’re after a distinctive voice, psychological realism or natural sounding dialogue, this isn’t the book for you. Ian's actually rather a boring protagonist with established values and no need for any sort of interior journey. And I found some of the story hard to believe when it comes to the hero and cultural mores: Ian’s easy acceptance of another man’s homosexuality, for example, or of his lover’s ‘scandalous’ past – without an explanation of how a character of his time comes to hold such radically tolerant attitudes, these things, there for the modern reader, don’t ring true. You can’t write about people from the past without giving them contemporary libertarian values to render them likeable. But it still wants some explaining, I would have thought. (And naming your blacksmith Steele is a bit much.)

None of the above makes the book any less readable, however; the satisfaction lies in all the detail and the plot lines; you’re desperate to know what happens next. This book is what it is: story and adventure, time-travel and history, and it serves its genre well. The Queen's Colonial has got me eager to read Watt's many other books.

3 ½ stars ★★★☆

The Queen's Colonial
By Peter Watt

ISBN: 9781760554729
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: 13/11/2018
Category: Fiction & related items / Historical fiction
Imprint: Macmillan Australia
Pages: 416
Price: $29.99

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Liza Dezfouli has been reviewing film, live performance, books and occasionally music for over a decade. She writes a blog under her own name and another, somewhat less-measured one called WhenMrWrongfeelsSoRight. She creates work for the stage herself every now and then and can occasionally be seen in shows or in short films. For more: www.lizadezfouli.com.