It is hard not to root for a man seeking to save the Titanic. What harm could possibly come from efforts made to spare the lives of over 1200 ill-fated passengers? As a reader, even a savvy reader who understands that all actions have consequences, especially those taken by time-travelers seeking to un-make former tragedies, our sympathy for Jonathan Wells, the first protagonist of David Kowalski’s action/Sci-Fi novel The Company of the Dead, are therefore understandable.
The how and why are yet unclear, but from the beginning the reader knows that Wells seeks to save a ship that reached the bottom of the ocean fifty years before he was born. It is from his attempt to decrease any chances of changing the future in unforeseen ways by only interacting with passengers he knows perished in the original voyage – therefore keeping only the company of the dead – that the novel takes its title.
What we discover very quickly, however, is that whatever the ultimate outcomes of Well’s actions for those on-board the Titanic, the consequences for the rest of the world are dramatic. America never enters World War I, for starters. By April 2012, the world is divided into a new Cold War chessboard with Greater Germany and the Empire of Japan taking the lion’s share of colonies, lands and allegiances. The US is once again divided between the Union and the Confederacy, and Empires and Kingdoms vastly outnumber democracies.
Enter into our story, Captain John Jacob Lightholler as he brings the most recent Titanic in for a safe docking 100 years after his distant relative tried to do the same for the original. After a surprise visit from members of the Confederate Bureau of Investigation (C.B.I.), including one Joseph Kennedy, Lightholler finds himself drawn into a world full of conspiracies, danger and the unlikely possibility that everything that has happened in the last century has been a terrible mistake.
In his debut novel, David Kowalski shows boldness and ambition as a writer. Weighing in at over 700 pages, The Company of the Dead is an alternate-history, espionage, conspiracy theory, time-travel novel. What’s more, it is a good alternate-history, espionage, conspiracy theory, time travel novel.
While it would be easy to get lost in such a complicated plot, Kowalski manages to provide believable landmarks in history for the reader, creating a road map between what we know from our own version of the world and how things come to be the way they are in the post-Wells Titanic world. Along side this meta-plot, he also provides small scale intrigue that often makes for the most exciting moments of the book. The early appearance of a mystic who informs Wells that certain things come to pass every time Wells attempts to carry out his plan not only provides terror and doubt for our protagonist, but also lets the reader know it is not wise to assume we know where this story is going. Within the first fifty pages, it is clear that there will be twists and turns to more than just the borders of countries in this tale.
By creating characters that have their own surprising histories along side the surprises of the new world, Kowalski ensures that his story is well-paced while keeping his writing efficient without being sparse. He makes good use of short chapters that leave the reader eager to move on to the next. It is no wonder that The Company of the Dead won the Aurealis Award (Australia’s equivalent of the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards combined) after its initial publication in Australia in 2007. Due to be re-released by Titan Books this March (2012), it would be a welcome addition to the reading list of any fan of Science Fiction.
It is also worth noting that the website for the novel provides some fun features, including a map of the alternate-history world (also provided in the book), information about the author and a handy timeline to help the reader keep track of events.Written by Rachel Proffitt
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