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The Company of the Dead

Authors: David J Kowalski
Publisher: Titan Books  £8.99
Review: by David Stonehouse.

April 1912. On board the RMS Titanic a mysterious time traveller hands Mr Fleet the lookout a pair of binoculars. Hours later Mr Fleet spots an iceberg in the ship’s path in time for her to turn and sail past in safety.

One hundred years later Captain John Lightholler, a descendant of a crew member on the original, sails a commemorative replica of the Titanic safely into a New York in a world which is very different from our own and teetering on the brink of an apocalyptic nuclear war.

So begins David J Kowalski’s mind-boggling time travel epic The Company of the Dead. It’s a book he has been working on for well over a decade and the result is an absolute behemoth of imagination. At 750 pages of dense print this really is a massive undertaking.

Kowalski’s world is a meticulously created alternate history based on the idea that when the Titanic sank a number of very powerful and influential people went down with the ship. If some of them had survived and continued on their paths to power and influence the international politics of the early twentieth century might have led to some very different outcomes. What if a traveller from the future changed the course of history to prevent the world wars and everything that happened as a consequence? What if that same act sent history on a path that was even worse?

In Kowalski’s alternate history the USA separated back into Union and Confederate states and never intervened in the European conflicts. Hitler never rose to power and, instead, three superpowers; the German and British Empire, the Japanese Empire and the Russian Empire, balance power across the globe. Unfortunately it is an uneasy, distrustful balance and tensions threaten to tip the whole mess into global war. To imagine a different world is easy but to present it so convincingly that it is compellingly believable is something else entirely. Kowalski succeeds completely. The alt history and politics are entirely plausible and the description of his world is immersively real. Our world is recognisable but with twists, Japanese troops stand sentry in New York and Confederate states are supported by German allies. Technology has developed down slightly different paths and there are huge zeppelins and giant airborne military bases call Stratolites guarding the sky. It’s all a bit bewildering to begin with but fortunately Kowalski paints on such a huge canvas that there is plenty of time for it all to bed down and become real to the reader.

The novel tracks the movements of six key players as they head inevitably toward a meeting with a time capsule in the New Mexico desert. First is Major Joseph Kennedy, grand nephew of JFK from a branch of the clan that didn’t survive our World War I. Kennedy has been in the time capsule and seen the near future. He saw a dead world. He also has evidence left by the interfering time traveller on the Titanic that gives a glimmer of hope that events could be rewritten and disaster averted. Kennedy is a Confederate leader with a loyal army to back him up but he is operating under the radar and his activities are drawing the attention of the intelligence services of the other powers. Hot on his tail is Agent Patricia Malcolm charged with uncovering Kennedy’s plot and bringing him in. There’s Lightholler whose expert knowledge of the Titanic makes him invaluable to Kennedy’s plan. There’s Morgan the historian, Doctor Gershon who can make the physics work and finally Shine, the assassin whose subtle arts might make the difference between success and failure back in 1912.

Kowalski’s leads are well drawn and they need to be because his narrative is complex and relies on sympathetic characters to hold it all together. The plot plays out as a series of threads asking the reader to continually jump from character to character as events unfold. If we didn’t fully engage with Kennedy and his crew it would rapidly become tedious. The fact that for the most part it doesn’t is a tribute to how well imagined his characters are.
The story works as an extended cat and mouse chase. Kennedy tries to shape his team and pull them all together to be in the right place at the right time but in doing so his actions draw the wrong sort of attention from enemies both at home and abroad. Different factions close in from all sides threatening to ruin everything. Our six players crash from one desperate incident to another while the world around them draws ever closer to the brink of war. Kowalski does well to keep it moving with a momentum that maintains the tension and excitement.

There isn’t much to criticise here. There are moments, particularly earlier in the book where it feels a bit confusing as there is just so much information to absorb. There are also places where the constant jumping between characters before they are fully established makes it hard to keep track of what is going on. This is only to be expected in a book as vast and intricate as this but it does make some sections a bit of a slog which might put some readers off, particularly if they’re feeling a bit bogged down and there’s still 500+ pages left to go. My advice would be to persevere – it is well worth sticking with it as the book offers a rich pay off that is well worth waiting for.

A word of warning though – this book is not set on the Titanic. For all the lovely cover artwork suggesting that this is an adventure set largely on the ship this is not the case. The Titanic is important because her fate changed history but this book is about the alternate timeline not the ill-fated liner. If you’re a Titanic enthusiast looking for a fix you’ll be disappointed. The facts and details are all there but only insofar as they serve the wider plot. It’s 600 pages before anyone goes back to 1912. With that little bombshell out the way the rest is praise. Kowalski’s novel is a tour-de-force of imagination and a rip-roaring adventure thriller. According to the biog Kowalski is working on a new novel. If it’s anywhere near as big and complex as this it probably won’t be appearing any time soon but it will definitely be worth the wait.

 

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