David Kowalski ‘s The Company of the Dead starts out well, as we are thrown headlong into a time-traveling action story.
The apparent protagonist has traveled back in time by means not yet revealed, and is attempting to save the Titanic from its fateful dunking.
The audience is well-exposed to the details of the ship, the true history of the disaster, and some of the key players. The action moves steadily, and I found myself not wanting to put the book down, as I was thrilled to see what would happen next.
As the protagonist is revealed to have saved the ship, only to see it strike another iceberg somewhere else, the story starts to play with the ideas of fate and predestination, and a mystical character arrives who may have some serious answers.
Suddenly, we’re not there anymore. The book takes a sudden turn away from the thrilling adventure of traveling through time, and becomes instead a rather slow spy novel set against a backdrop of a clever alternate history.
And it is clever. Kowalski is a superb and detailed world-builder. Here we have a present day United States which is split by a second civil war and which is partially occupied by Japan and Germany. We soon learn that this is due to the changed past. When the Titanic sunk in this world a different set of survivors emerged than in our world. World politics were irreparably altered. The first few conversations from our new protagonist – in a modern-day, Japan occupied New York City - detail it quite nicely, though perhaps a bit windily; understandable without any in-the-dark character to whom an explanation is necessitated.
Then the novel starts following a few groups of characters, most with little to no personality, and who are difficult to tell apart on occasion. The setting descriptions are vast, and the gratuitous exposition (every conversation seems to strive to reveal more about the alternate timeline, despite not needing the information quite yet) starts becoming tedious. All the while, the reader is left wondering about that original time-traveler. Hundreds of pages pass without even getting into the fun, sci-fi part of the plot again, and when it does, it feels unrewarding and shallow, as the protagonist now has to go through an, apparently very slow, process of accepting the impossible as possible.
No one’s role in the book is really clear, which would be fine for a spy-novel if that’s what The Company of the Dead wanted to be, but it clearly attempted to be a time-travel story, which is all well-and-good, except that it was too talky for a time-travel novel. It has the epic length and descriptions of a Fantasy Epic, the confusion of a spy novel, and the plot holes of a time-travel tale, but none of the really fun properties of any of the three.
The pay-off at the end of the book is good, clever, even well-crafted, but the investment that it takes to get there is not really worth the return. Unless you have a lot of time to use up, and are looking for an over-long tale in which to lose it, I can’t recommend this book to a typical sci-fi reader. If, however, you are a great lover of clever alternate histories, no matter the cost, you’re the audience this book seeks.