Samuel Forbes, a British aristocrat serving in the New Zealand Land Wars in 1845, is estranged from his family and desperately out of place in the army. Ian Steele, a blacksmith in rural New South Wales, dreams of life as an officer in the British army, but is tied to his widowed mother and held back by being the son of former convicts. When they meet by chance, and realise their similar physical appearance, it gives each of them a chance to follow their dreams.
The story thereafter follows Ian as he takes on Samuel’s persona, attempting to make his way in aristocratic and army circles in England. He makes friends and enemies along the way, and is sent with his regiment and ersatz younger brother to the Crimean War.
Peter Watt has a long list of pubished titles to his name, as well as a varied job history that includes soldiering, which shows in the detail of regimental life, both in London and the Crimea. He’s clearly had success as a writer, although I found his style took a lot of getting used to. The dialogue in particular caused me problems. I found it extremely stiff and formal and quite expository, and not at all how I imagine new Australians talked to each other (and certainly not how other authors portray speech of that place and period). Many of the characters were unexpectedly frank with each other, in ways that even today most people probably wouldn’t be, and it was hard to imagine Victorian men and women being so honest and upfront about their thoughts and feelings, especially after a very short acquaintance. There was also a lot of repetition and detail that didn’t further the plot, and occasionally caused my eyes to glaze over.
Never fear though, I stuck it out, and I’m glad I did. During the second half of the book, I found my enjoyment picked up and I stopped noticing the dialogue and repetition so much. The scenes at the siege of Sebastopol in particular were vividly written and awfully reminiscent of the trenches of World War I. The intrigues of Charles Forbes and Major Jenkins added a sense of anticipation and danger to the story arc. I even found myself looking forward to the next instalment in the series – and I certainly wouldn’t have predicted that in the first 150 pages.
If you like historical fiction with a heavy war angle, The Queen’s Colonial may be for you. My taste in written dialogue won’t be everyone’s, so judge for yourself at the bookstore, and sample a couple of pages to see if it suits.
Reviewed by Rachel Moore
The Queen’s Colonial
by Peter Watt
Published by Macmillan Aus