Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Company of the Dead: A Review

The overture to David J. Kowalski's debut novel The Company of the Dead could easily be reworked to make a compelling addition to Andrew Looney's nanofiction archive:

Jonathan hadn't planned on going back in time. But once he did, he knew what he wanted to do: save the Titanic. Equipped with a pair of futuristic binoculars, he helped the lookout spot the iceberg that sunk the great ship. Unfortunately, they didn't see the second iceberg  hours later. Fate always gets her way.

Ultimately, Jonathan Wells, a vascular surgeon from our times, fails in his attempt to save the Titanic. Nonetheless, the changed circumstances of her sinking lead to a vastly different reality: in 2012, the world is dominated by German and Japanese empires that divide a weakened United States between themselves. This is all very reminiscent of Philip K. Dick's classic, The Man in the High Castle. Similar to Dick's novel, many of Kowalski's characters sense that something isn't quite right about the world in which they live. This is where the similarities end, though; the reader of Kowalski's novel is actually offered an explanation as to how this alternate history came to be, and some characters of the novel set out to restore history to its proper course.

In the alternate version of the present, Jonathan Wells' counterpart is Joseph Kennedy, a grand-nephew of JFK and agent for the Confederate Bureau of Investigation. Kennedy and his compatriots aim to travel back in time so as to guide history back to its supposed original timeline. This involves a cross-country chase from Japanese-occupied New York City to the deserts of Nevada during the beginnings of a war between the German and Japanese empires. The going is arduous at times (for the reader as well, the novel would have benefited were it slightly leaner), but memorable characters such as a historian, a descendant of a ship's officer of the Titanic, and a one-eyed spy director keep things lively.

Kowalski eventually does a good job of tying things up, so those readers who do brave all 750 pages will be glad they stuck things out. However, the book is worth picking up just for the overture, which is very cleverly done. My advice to you, dear reader: read the first 15 pages, and then decide for yourself.