The Company of the Dead – Book Review
Would you save the Titanic if you could?
by David J. Kowalski, Titan Books
Would you save the Titanic from sinking if you could travel back in time?
Any regular science fiction reader will tell you that it is a bad idea because there are always Unintended Consequences ™. In author David J. Kowalski’s debut novel – neatly timed to coincide with the centenary of the Titanic’s sinking – none of the characters seem to have read any sci-fi, or are aware that they are indeed characters in a science fiction story. If they did, then they would have known that unless you are a certain Gallifreyan time lord, it is in general a bad idea to try and change the past.
In Company of the Dead an accidental time traveler fails in his attempts to save the Titanic (if only the lookout had a pair of decent binoculars!).
However, there are still Unintended Consequences ™ because of his efforts. In this case John Jacob Astor IV, the richest and most influential passenger aboard the doomed ship, manages to survive the disaster and goes on to become president of the United States.
Needless to say, he turns out to be a lousy president and the States loses World War I against the Kaiser’s Germany. Fast forward 100 years to 2012 and the world is divided between two powerful empires, namely those of a Germany in which Adolf Hitler was nothing but a painter and Japan. The United States itself is divided into north and south with parts such as New York and California belonging to the two foreign powers.
In this alternate reality the two Empires are at each others’ throats and a nuclear holocaust seems imminent.
Into the fray steps Joseph Kennedy, a fictional member of the famous Kennedy clan. Kennedy is aware of our inadvertent time traveler having interfered with the world’s timeline and plans to fix it by also travelling back in time and stopping him. Only problem is that war has already broken out and his own people in the CBI (Confederate Bureau of Investigation) believe that he is a traitor who has sold out to the Japanese . . .
Think an alternate history Indiana Jones-style adventure wedded to a complicated time story and you’ll have an idea of what to expect of The Company of the Dead (not a very descriptive title – it sounds like a horror book). The only problem is that clocking in at 750 pages that Kowalski’s novel is simply too long!
In his acknowledgements the author writes that the novel began life as a short story before evolving into the “monolith” that is his first novel. The time travel stuff is intriguing, but the adventure stuff involving narrow escapes, gun fights and the like is not particularly interesting. The novel could easily have been up to 200 and more pages shorter and have lost none of its impact. The middle section feels like so much padding before the story gets back again to the time travel story-line that gripped one’s attention at the beginning.
Kowalski also pulls out all the stops in his efforts not to bore the reader: short chapters and a narrative focus that shifts from one character to the next. All the while the novel would have benefitted from longer chapters and more focus on one central character instead of jumping around like it does.
Still, the book is well researched and might even inspire some readers to read a bit more on what is probably the best known maritime disaster of all time – and no, we’re not talking about Celine Dion’s song at the end of that movie!
An intriguing time travel and alternate history novel that could have done with being shorter. Much shorter in fact. Ideal reading for your next holiday boat cruise though.