First time author David Kowalski certainly took on an big task for his début novel: The Company of the Dead is a wildly ambitious story that hops around from genre to genre not so much breaking the rules of good writing as simply being completely oblivious to their very existence. The end result might not always be the prettiest or easiest read, but it’s certainly strikingly original and vividly rewarding for those prepared to stick with it.
The narrative starts with a retelling of the story of the fateful last night of Titanic, a good choice since most everyone knows those events courtesy of the 1997 James Cameron film. At first the account is accurate, but then as things proceed you’ll notice things starting to vary from the known facts: in particular, the ship successfully avoids the iceberg. One iceberg, at least, if not the second. People die who should live, and others that we know should die manage to survive. The effect on history proves to be immense as we move back to the modern day and find a steampunk world with huge dirigibles and even larger vessels dominating the skies above a completely unfamiliar geopolitical landscape. There’s a Cold War stand-off between two global superpowers, but now it’s Japan whose samurai enforcers walk the streets of New York City, while the rump of the former US is now the Confederacy and is aligned to the Kaiser’s global German Empire. There were no Nazis, Hitler was merely a little-remembered second-rate Austrian painter of the mid 20th century, but there was still a fatal shooting in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas in 1963.
This is not a book for the faint-hearted: at best it’s deliciously, fiendishly complicated and at worst it’s an intensely frustrating mindf*ck. Part of that is because this wholly transformed world is necessarily drip-fed to us in small doses (it’s either that or produce a two volume reference book of a century of altered history.) In fact the characters in the story are just as much at a loss as the reader thanks to the cloak of Cold War espionage, deadly political games, devious conspiracy theories and ultimately by the fog of all-out war. Everyone’s guessing at what’s going on and the motivations of the other players, and they’re usually wrong. And as baffled as the reader might be much of the time, at least we have one piece of knowledge denied to the participants in the tale: we actually know what the world should look like and where it all went wrong.
Later on the spy games give way first to chase scenes and shoot-outs, then to all-out large scale military battle sequences and ultimately to a time travel hard-SF plot before finally a return to where it all started on April 14 1912 in an attempt to put things back on track – only to find out it’s not nearly as simple as they expected and that they’ve been here before. Along the way, people you expected to be big players wane and fade before the end while others become unexpectedly important: if a big publishing house had got their hands on this manuscript they would likely have tightened everything up and made it more conventional so it’s just as well that genre specialist Titan got there first and allowed Kowalski to have his exuberantly undisciplined way with it all.
Underneath all the slightly manic and confusing non-linear plotting and the at-times overwhelming genre mash-up, this is a very well written book which despite all the big ideas and concepts flying around manages to pay equal respects to creating a team of characters that feel real and personable, people you want to spend time hanging out with and miss when they’re gone. They’re not perfect people by any means – in fact there’s not one who doesn’t make a terrible misstep along the way, and equally, not one left at the end who isn’t at least partially redeemed as well – but they’re certainly interesting and varied ones with a tale to tell.
As befits a time travel that begins and ends with variations on the same events, this is a book that I could have cheerfully immediately turned back to page one and started to read all over again, this time with a greater sense of knowledge and awareness of what was going on. That would make it a totally different experience the second time around, although to be honest I’m in the group of people who fell under its bewildering spell early on first time through despite not having a clue what was going on half the time. Like a Steven Moffat plot for Doctor Who, the initially impenetrable intricacies eventually became clear and opened up like a closed flower responding to the first sunlight of morning. If you have patience and an open mind for a work of slightly unhinged imaginative genius delivered with a surprising technical precision then The Company of the Dead could well be for you.
The saddest thing for me was at the end when I’d finished reading, and when I realised that I didn’t have a clue what to move on to next – because there wasn’t anything else quite like this.
The Company of the Dead is available in trade paperback from booksellers and in e-book editions.