The Colonials by Tom Durwood is an exciting and ambitious work of historical fiction for young adults, where teenagers come of age during a violent time, ultimately changing the course of history.
The year is 1775 and a large number of complex characters are at play: young Will Oldenbarnevelt is the second-born son to a wealthy Dutch shipping merchant, Jiayi Wei Ying is Yunhe jiating of the Chinese Grand Canal clan, Countess Clotilde Ushakov is the eldest niece of Ekaterina Alexeevna, Empress of all Russia, Leo Krummensee-Grabmaler is heir to the House of Hohenzollern…and many others, giving a sense of the impressive scope and scale of this novel.
Together, this fascinating set of characters are the newest crop of the future’s brightest at the Academy for Royals, a haloed place run by masters, where they work at menial tasks during the day and study old manuscripts and clean barns when not working or sleeping. Once they return to their respective countries to assume their rightful places, they quickly learn that life outside the cloistered walls of their Academy is harsh. They nevertheless prevail, inadvertently changing the course of history, aided by the mysterious Society of Navigators…
The Colonials is clearly well-researched, containing the high-octane adventure quotient of a James Michener novel and the imaginative complexity of a Harry Potter tale. There are definite parallels between Hogwarts and the Academy, but the trope is never misused, and rather heightens the import of the historical narrative. At the heart of the American Revolution lies a global narrative and Durwood effectively builds on this premise, using teenage protagonists thrust into very adult situations of treachery, bloodbaths, and betrayal.
Far from being a textbook in fictional form, Durwood excels at telling the story through his well-drawn characters. All six of the teenage protagonists come from very different walks of life and the only common denominator between them is their background of privilege. Will, Mei Ying, Clotilde, Leo, Mahmet and Gilbert are all blessed with very special skillsets such as a proficiency for weapons, or numbers or an appreciation for the earth’s bounty, giving the book a true sense of adventure. As the Academy nurtures their intellect and squabbles force unlikely alliances, unexpected hostilities quickly band them together as one united front.
While some historians may not agree with the author’s interpretation that the American Revolution was the “first skirmish” in a global storm, few will argue that The Colonials is highly entertaining as fiction. The details in the narrative are plentiful and serve to transport the reader back in time with vivid clarity, whether it’s to a battlefield or elegant drawing room. There are some typos here and there, and the dialogue appears to be a little stiff at times, but this formality lends itself to the period.
Overall, The Colonials is an epic, high-stakes adventure that effectively chronicles a struggle for human dignity during wartime. Aimed at young and old alike, it’s a compelling novel with a vitally important story at its core that is sure to appeal to historical fiction aficionados.
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