The Company of the Dead by David Kowalski.
Published by Titan Books (UK) March 2012.
Originally published in Australia, 2007.
Review by Mark Yon
You might have realised that we’re approaching the centennial anniversary of the sinking of HMS Titanic on 14/15th April 1912. I’ve already reread Arthur C Clarke’s take on the raising of the wreck in The Ghost from the Grand Banks, but here’s a new(ish) tale, albeit with old fashioned trappings.
Like the Titanic itself, in terms of size this novel is a monster: 800+ pages of fairly small print and not for the faint-hearted.
Pleasingly though, it is a satisfyingly complex tale, one involving alternate history and time travel, with a touch of conspiracy theory and even romance. Considering this is a debut novel, it is quite daunting to see an author cover such a wide range of ideas. And yet, impressively, David manages to juggle these disparate elements into a book that entertains without lecturing.
We flit between events on and around the Titanic’s maiden voyage as we know it in 1912 to an alternate 2012, where World War One was not entered by the USA, Hitler was famous for being an artist, World War Two ended differently, the Kennedy assassinations in the 1960’s happened at the same time in Dallas and the current state of global geopolitics in 2012 is skewed towards Asia. In this alternate future Japan and Germany the dominant superpowers, with New York established as a Japanese Protectorate and Germany is allied with Britain. The USA is divided into the Union and the Confederacy, with parts of what we would call the USA, such as the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii and Alaska, owned by Japan.
Our tale here begins with events upon the original Titanic being changed, yet the ship still sinking. Flash forward to 2012 and the descendant of one of the original ship’s officers, John Jacob Lightholler is now the Captain of a new version of the Titanic, sailing across the Atlantic for a commemorative centennial service of the original journey. On Lightholler’s arrival to New York, we find him contacted by Joseph Kennedy, one of the descendants of the Kennedy family, who tells him that he has been honourably discharged from the Titanic, put back into British Naval service by King Edward IX of Britain and is being made to work with the Confederate Bureau of Investigation (CBI). At a time of emerging nuclear weapons Japan seems to be declaring war on Germany and the US. To avert global disaster Kennedy and his team must put the world on the time-track it should be. Lightholler finds himself part of that group that are to travel back in time and correct the minor changes to the past that have diverted history from its predetermined route.
From there we get into conspiracy and double cross upon double cross, involving time machines and alternate time lines, the Titanic, the Kennedy assassinations and the Roswell US base site. It sounds crazy in précis, but it is well thought out and it works surprisingly well.
At times the range of characters and variety of times and places all occurring in place at the same time can be quite jaw-dropping, yet this all adds to the impression of the Epic. The tale tantalisingly mixes real events and people with alternate situations and extrapolations of ‘the road not taken’.
At 800 pages or so, the widescreen plot is initially daunting, but actually rarely boring: this engaging epic-ness is very impressive. On the downside, the striking action pieces and fast pace, at times, cover up a lack of depth in the characterisation, though it is pretty clear here what the reader is dealing with.
Whilst you might argue that the tale is nothing particularly new, it is a version very well done. It certainly kept me turning the pages and working out (often wrongly) where things would go next.
In summary, a great big, time-swallowing, immersive book to wallow in, which is a lot of fun. This one will be a great holiday read. Recommended.
The Company of the Dead was first published in Australia in 2007, where it won the 2007 Aurealis Award –both for Best Novel and Best Science Fiction Novel.
Mark Yon, March/April 2012