Book Review: The Company of the Dead

The Company of the Dead
By David J. Kowalski
Titan Books
Release date: March 13, 2012
Paperback | Kindle

The Company of the Dead is quite an ambitious debut by obstetrician/gynecologist-turned-novelist, David J. Kowalski. This vivid sci-fi-military-thriller packs a lot of punch. Clocking in at 744 pages of dense multiple storylines that span a century of regular and alternative world history, Kowalski submerges us in the mysteries involving the original sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and many subsequent sinkings that occur.

Jonathan Wells, a doctor who is either earnest and well-intentioned or utterly mad, discovers a time machine quite accidentally when he’s called upon to perform emergency surgery at a secret government compound in Nevada. When things go south and he’s about to be shot, he escapes in the time machine with Dr. Gershon, another main character, thus kick-starting a century-long wild game of fix and re-fix.

Somehow, Wells gets the idea that if he can prevent the Titanic from sinking, it will change history for the better. But as we know from the Butterfly Effect, the tiniest flutter – like handing a crewmember a pair of ultra-modern infrared goggles so he can spot a certain iceberg well before the infamous 1912 impact – can cause a sea change with catastrophic consequences; in this case, it may lead to Armageddon. True, Hitler never makes it to the big time, but all sorts of other bad dookie goes down instead.

Each time Wells boards the Titanic, he hangs out with a doomed group of elites, including the Astors and the Guggenheims, and dubs them “The Company of the Dead” because none of them survive the first sinking of the ship. During one remaking, though, one does survive and goes on to instigate giant mess between nations that leads to more wars and occupations than I could actually keep track of.

Enter Major Joseph Kennedy of the Confederate Bureau of Investigations, whose very existence hinges on Wells’ time tinkering. It’s 2012 and Kennedy’s on a mission to find the lynchpin holding the Wells version of the future so he can rip it right the frack out of time. Using a journal that Wells left behind in the purser’s safe as a guide, Kennedy gathers together a small group of key players in a chess-like game of strategy and timing shit right.

Not all the contestants want to play, though, especially John Lightholler, direct descendant of the original Titanic’s first officer. Lightholler just so happens to be the captain of the 2012 Titanic replica, the maiden voyage of which is the setting of a significant meeting between various world powers. This causes the CBI to be up his bum for two completely different reasons and Lightholler spends much of the book feeling lost and doomed yet resignedly committed to Kennedy’s plan nonetheless.

The world of 2012 is nothing we’d recognize: Germany is the heaviest hitter in a world run by shady empires seeking world domination. Japan is second heaviest and has long occupied New York City. The South has succeeded from the North and America is divided into two nations. War is a given and dirigibles are the modern warship of choice, launching aircraft bombers while floating way up in the sky.

Every side is always ripe and ready to drop an A-bomb in Kowalski’s 2012 – all because Dr. Wells thought he could make a better future by going back to save the Titanic. I spent a whole week reading this book and still don’t know why or how he came to obsess over this specific event.

If this sounds a bit convoluted, it’s because it is. War is chaotic and hard enough to make sense of in real life. Kowalski drives that point home further in the lengthy battle scenes that I found a little hard to follow. His prose is lovely, though, even when describing the horrendous brutality of combat. The abundance of scrambled histories, told in excruciating and sometimes confusing detail, threw me a bit and I found myself having to reread certain passages thinking, “Wait – didn’t I just read something entirely incongruous on the page before?”

Even though the book is long, I wish it would’ve been stretched out for clarity’s sake, or broken down into perhaps four novellas, rather than one cinderblock in 8-pt font with far more tangles than a Rasta’s dreads. The chapters are mercifully short throughout most of the book, but there are about a million of them. A lot of The Company of the Dead reads like more of a war epic than true sci-fi adventure and lots of loose ends are left flapping in the hot desert breeze.

Ultimately, though, I was satisfied at the end of The Company of the Dead. The major storylines were resolved and people went wherever they needed to go. And then I took a long-ass nap.

You can learn more about The Company of the Dead and the myths and legends surrounding the real Titanic here and you can also read Geeks Of Doom’s exclusive excerpt.

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