By Marty Mulrooney
The Company of the Dead is an award-winning alternate history thriller written by Australian author David J. Kowalski that was recently published by Titan Books in the UK. A medical practitioner by trade, Kowalski had previously been published in medical journals but this bold novel, originally published in 2007, marked his fiction writing debut. Set against the backdrop of the sinking of the Titanic – a tragic event that occurred exactly one hundred years ago to the day of this review being published – Kowalski asks the reader to consider a world where the United States never entered World War One. A world where there is no United States of America and samurai patrol the streets of New York City with machine pistols hung over their shoulders…
I’ve entered uncharted waters, he thought. Hic sunt dracones. Here there be dragons.
The magnitude of his undertaking began to draw upon him. Tentatively he placed both hands on the ship’s rail. It was one final test of reality, one final test of faith. Cold steel retaliated with teeth of ice. He held his grip till the burn of it receded to numbness.
The book opens on April 14, 1912 on board the Titanic as it sails across the North Atlantic. People go about their business on the gigantic vessel in ignorance, unaware of impending disaster. Yet somehow, one man knows what lies ahead for the ship – and hopes to alter its fate. That man is the aptly named Jonathan Wells, a troubled soul who might be a time traveller but could just as easily be insane. Little does he realise that by offering a pair of modern-day binoculars to the ship’s lookout, he will alter the face of the 20th century in ways that he could never have imagined in his wildest dreams or darkest nightmares…
As first impressions go, the opening to The Company of the Dead is one of the most brilliantly written, thrilling examples of modern fiction writing that any serious reader will likely read today. The descriptions are so vivid and the sense of time and place so real that it feels like you are actually stepping back in time along with Wells. Being on board any doomed ship, destined to sink, would be terrifying. To suddenly find yourself upon the Titanic, knowing that there aren’t enough lifeboats, the ocean is at a sub-zero temperature and help won’t be coming any time soon is a terrifying prospect indeed – Kowalski makes the scenario so palpable that this knowledge rushes through the reader’s mind from the outset. Whether Jonathon Wells is insane or not, we will him to make a change – any change – as he desperately races against the clock.
Lightholler lit another cigarette, his eyes again falling to the last two photographs. “So what was in the safe?”
Kennedy pressed forwards in his chair, waiting for Lightholler to meet his eyes. “Some gold, some jewellery, stocks, bonds, and this.” He reached into the satchel and withdrew a book.
To say what actually happens (or doesn’t happen) would be to reveal far too much, but when the novel suddenly jumps to the present day in April 2012, you could be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief at being back on land and presumably familiar ground. Yet something isn’t quite right and it soon transpires that the events of April 14, 1912 were just the tip of the iceberg. In an America occupied by the Germans on the East Coast and the Japanese on the West Coast, Joseph Kennedy, grand-nephew to John F. Kennedy, sets in motion a sprawling and dangerous plan to restore history back to its rightful place.
Again, to reveal much more than this would be to spoil what is without question one of the most imaginative and rich novels released in recent times. Suffice to say, at 750 pages, this review barely scratches the surface of this sprawling epic. Kennedy is a rogue member of the CBI (Confederate Bureau of Intelligence) and is joined by his associates Hardas, Morgan and Shine. His team is almost complete, but he still needs to recruit one more man – Captain John Jacob Lightholler, a direct descendant of the original Titanic’s second officer Charles Lightholler. Their mission – to stop Jonathon Wells.
“Do you prefer sunrise or sunset?”
Kennedy held the middle distance in his vacant eyes. He mightn’t have heard her.
They sat closer now, almost touching. A chill had taken the air, seeming to issue from the desert floor below them rather than the darkening skies above.
After a while he said “You’ve asked me that before, Patricia.”
“I know. I remember. Things change.”
The premise is gripping from the outset but it is the characters that make this a story worth reading. The book occasionally flirts with settling on a main character, but in truth every single central and supporting player is fleshed out and vividly realised to the nth degree. Kowalski doesn’t just create a world startlingly different yet scarily similar to our own – he populates it with a cast of broken heroes, unsure villains and everyone in-between. Each character has their own agenda and nobody is a clear-cut case of good or bad. The heroes do bad things arguing necessity whilst the villains scramble after them, always one step behind.
The Company of the Dead uses science fiction as a backdrop for its story rather than a mere crutch to be leaned upon. The result is a book that surprises with its depth, not just of storytelling and imagination, but of genuine emotion and involvement too. It is a breathless adventure that takes place back and forth across one hundred years of time and the unrecognisable face of an American landscape divided and scarred. Sometimes the tapestry of the text and the world it conveys can become so detailed that the reader struggles to keep up, but these moments are softened by the breakneck pace and constantly evolving narrative. Written over ten years, this is an alternative history masterpiece that defies convention and genre to become a tome worth sinking into. Gripping and unforgettable – The Company of the Dead is an essential read that, despite being based around an infamous maritime disaster that everyone is familiar with, has an ending nobody will see coming.
10 OUT OF 10