Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 25 October 2022)
Series: The Colonial series – Book Five
Length: 368 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Australia’s master of the historical adventure returns with another deeply exciting and highly intriguing character driven read that follows one historical family as they embark on war and adventure across the world, Call of Empire by Peter Watt.
Towards the end of each year, I always know that I am about to have my historical action and adventure quota filled as the new Peter Watt is coming out. Watt has been a particularly enjoyable and compelling Australian author for years, producing intriguing historical fiction books with a focus on Australian history. His works have so far included the long-running Frontier series and his compelling Papua trilogy, both of which contained some remarkable historical adventures. However, I personally have been really getting into his currently body of work, The Colonial series, which I have had a wonderful time reading in recent years.
The Colonial series started of back in 2018 with The Queen’s Colonial, an intriguing read that followed young Australian Ian Steele in 1845 as he switched places with an English nobleman to take up his commission in a British regiment. Becoming Captain Samuel Forbes, Steele found himself drawn into several of England’s deadly 19th century wars, while also forced to confront several dangers back in England as the real Samuel Forbes’ family sought to have him killed. This fantastic series continued for two more books, The Queen’s Tiger and The Queen’s Captain, both of which were excellent reads. Watt continued the series last year with The Colonial’s Son, which jumped ahead a couple of decades to follow the main character’s oldest son as he followed in his father’s footsteps and become a soldier in the Queen’s army. I had a great deal of fun with these exciting books, and I was very happy when I received the next entry in the series, Call of Empire.
Starting in 1885, several years after the conclusion of The Colonial’s Son, Call of Empire sees protagonist Ian Steele finally living the quiet life in New South Wales, enjoying time with his family and friends, and expanding his business empire. However, the British Empire is constantly finding itself in conflict across the globe, and soon the young New South Wales colony is called upon to send troops to assist the British campaign in Sudan.
Determined to serve the Empire once again, Ian’s oldest son, Josiah, takes a commission in the New South Wales army and journeys to Africa to fight the Sudanese forces for the British. However, his decision will alienate him from the love of his life, Marian Curry, who is determined that he stop fighting in imperialistic wars. At the same time, Ian’s younger son, Samuel, is learning the family business out in the Pacific with the family’s friend, Ling Lee. However, Samuel and Lee are soon dragged into a dangerous plot to smuggle guns for the Chinese, as Lee’s obsession with freeing China from European control leads them into mortal danger.
Soon the entire Steele family finds themselves in deep trouble across the world, and only the most daring of actions will help them survive. But as the Empire’s wars continue and the Steele family and their friends are drawn into even more conflicts, can even their legendary luck continue? Death and tragedy awaits them all, and soon the Steele family will face a loss they never expected.
This was another fantastic and deeply exciting novel from Watt, who continues to dazzle with his fast-paced writing and impressive historical insights. I loved the awesome story contained in Call of Empire, and I ended up powering through this book in less than a day.
Watt produces another exciting and ultra-fast paced story for Call of Empire that takes the reader on a wild and captivating journey through some interesting parts of late 19th century history. Starting in 1885, Call of Empire primarily follows the three male members of the Steele family as they attempt to overcome the various challenges they face in their respective endeavours. Watt tells a multi-layered, multi-generational, character driven story that follows multiple characters simultaneously as they engage in their own story. This means that readers are often treated to a range of different storylines in the same chapter, having one character engaged in war, while another deals with issues at home, and at the same time a third finds themselves caught up in adventures at sea. This makes for quite a complex read, although the range of storylines are well balanced and never oversaturate or confuse the story. Indeed, Watt is a pretty clear and concise writer, and the reader is able to have a lot of fun with several of the storylines at the same time. Watt features an outstanding range of storylines throughout Call of Empire, and I loved the blend of war, politics, exploration, business, romance, character development and legal concerns that were featured at various points throughout the 15 year long plot. This reminded me a lot of the author’s previous Frontier novels, especially the focus on one big family, and I had a wonderful time seeing the elaborate narrative he wove around his characters. Watt really takes this story in some interesting directions, and there are a few big surprises, as well as some tragedies that established readers of this series will be hit hard by. This proved to be quite an addictive read, and I loved seeing his characters continue to traverse through life in their chaotic and adventurous ways. The book ends at the start of the new century, and it looks like Watt will be taking his characters in World War I next time, which I am sure will be suitably traumatic.
Easily my favourite thing about this book was Watt’s excellent dive into the always eventful colonial history of Australia. In particular, Watt examines several lesser-known wars and conflicts from the 19th century, with a particular focus on the role of New South Wales. This starts early in the plot with one of the characters getting involved in the Suakin Expedition in Sudan, which was part of the larger Mahdist War. This deployment saw a battalion of New South Wales soldiers travel to Sudan as part of the war effort and was the very first military force to be raised and deployed overseas by Australia. While there wasn’t a lot of fighting involved with this campaign, I was deeply intrigued by the history and the politics behind it, and Watt did a wonderful job of exploring it in great detail throughout the book by inserting his characters. Watt continued this trend throughout the rest of the book, which saw several of his characters involved in both the Boer War and the Boxer Rebellion in China. Both conflicts had Australian soldiers involved, fighting on the side of the British, and Watt took exquisite care to explore what role the Australians played in them, and how they came to be involved in the conflict.
Out of all of them, I particularly enjoyed the captivating examination of the Boer War in Africa, which was one of the more deadly wars Australians fought in during the 19th century. This war, and one of the character’s roles in it, dominated a good part of the book, and Watt did an amazing job of bringing different parts of the conflict to life. The author really captured just how dark and bloody this war was, from snipers in the African bush, to the horrors inflicted on the Boer settlers. However, Watt saves some of his best writing for the Battle of Elands River, a protracted battle that saw the Boers surround a force of Australians and their allies in a brutal siege for 13 days. Naturally, one of the characters is right in the middle of this fight, and Watt really showcased the carnage and terror that the Australians would have felt being surrounded and bombarded. I honestly didn’t know a great deal about some of these early Australian military conflicts, and it was absolutely fascinating to see them come to life in the hands of this talented author. Having this great historical background really enhanced the overall quality of the novel, and I had a wonderful time diving back into these sometimes overlooked parts of Australian military history.
As I mentioned above, Call of Empire was a very character focused book that featured a range of fantastic point of view protagonists through whose eyes the story unfolded. Watt features a great combination of characters, with a compelling mixture of younger figures who were the focus of The Colonial’s Son, and even a few characters from the first three Colonial books. There was quite a range of different character storylines in Call of Empire, and you swiftly get drawn into the various unique adventures of each of the characters. It was fascinating to see how the older characters had evolved since their original adventures, and I liked how Watt started focusing more on the next generation, including by expanding the role of the younger Steele son, Sam, who had an amazing outing here. There is a great examination of the events that help to form these figures character, and it was fantastic to see them overcome so much adversity at various parts of their life. I will say that some of the male Steele characters did tend to blend personality wise as the book proceeded, mostly as they are cut from the same adventurous cloth, but you still grow to like all of them, and you ended up getting touched when bad things happen to them. There are some very interesting and powerful developments that hit the main characters in this book, and this ended up being a very key novel in the family history. I had a wonderful time seeing the latest exploits of the Steele family, and with the next generation being introduced towards the end of the book, you know that they have even more adventures to come.
Peter Watt continues to showcase his talent as Australia’s premiere author of the Australian historical adventure with his latest Colonial novel, Call of Empire. Bringing back several of his fantastic protagonists from the previous books, Watt crafts together another exciting read that dives into some intriguing parts of Australia’s military history. Fast paced and full of awesome action, Call of Empire is another amazing read from Watt, and one that I had a lot of fun getting through.