Here’s Company of the Dead in a nutshell: Germany and Japan rule most of the world and are at an uneasy detente. The United States really is no more, as Japan has taken New York and the West Coast, and the South broke off after a second Civil War and is quietly allied with Germany. Amid all of this, Joseph Kennedy – of the Kennedys – is a Confederate war hero now running a secret operation as an intelligence officer for the South to prepare to unite the states once again.
Or maybe that’s what Kennedy is doing. His boss, his ex-girlfriend, the media, all but his closest allies are trying to figure out what is really behind Kennedy’s moves. His motives go deeper and broader, as it turns out. He has discovered a time machine, as well as evidence that someone has been messing with history. During a brief trip to the near future, Kennedy sees a decimated planet, nuclear war ravaging the world and killing everything. He must go back in time to set history on the right path and, hopefully, save Earth. The incident that changes history, which Kennedy and company must confront? The sinking of the Titanic.
Author David Kowalski’s effort is brilliant, because the description above doesn’t quite cover the breadth of the author’s historical knowledge nor his ability to lay out a bizarre, mind-twisting path that our heroes blaze down. In part, the journey is a monumental effort to avert the end of history. In part, it is a journey these brave men (and woman) have taken many times, so many, in fact, that this is the last attempt before reality is torn apart by their time skipping, leading to an end that only the fates know.
Kowalski has crafted a fast-moving, action-heavy thriller that doesn’t slow to take many breaths over its 700+ pages. But he goes much deeper than that, sinking into the nature of reality, the question of fate vs. free will, people who are so key to the direction of history that they exist almost as other-worldly presences, recognized by those who live on the same frequency as the larger universe. If you could go back and change history, should you? What are the repercussions. If history is what it is, why should it be changed?
I’m not a fan of the alternative history genre, in general. But Company of the Dead is both unique in its aim and finely crafted, so much so that down the road, I may have to revisit Kowalski’s vision.