Audiobook Review: The Company of the Dead by David Kowalski

24 09 2013

The Company of the Dead by David Kowalski

Read by Peter Marinker

Audible, Inc.

Length: 24 Hrs 46 Min

Genre: Alternate History

Quick Thoughts: The Company of the Dead was a tough one for me. I could have probably spent a thousand words writing about things I loved about the book, and another thousand complaining about the things I hated. In the end, it’s a wonderful tale of alternate history and time travel set against the backdrop of The Titanic bookended around an overly long, overly elaborate and often boring and confusing mess of an action novel.

Grade: B-

You would think a book involving The Titanic, Roswell, a time traveler named Wells, a Kennedy with an aim to establish his own personal Camelot, an alternate history where The United States was broken up and partially ruled by Japan, where the German Empire remains strong and the world is on the edge of nuclear annihilation would be so full of awesome it couldn’t possible be contained within a 15 hour audiobook, right? Well, probably so. The Company of the Dead is full of lots of awesome.  Lots. Sadly, it’s also full of overly elaborate scenes involving a cross country chase, mystical Indians, heavy handed world building and intricately detailed alternate history that fills up a production of over 24 hours. Honestly, I love long books. I used to dismiss books that came in under 300 pages. I used to evaluate a book based on the size of its type print, yet while The Company of the Dead had a wonderful start and a brilliant finish. The 20 hours between dragged on way, way too much.

Daniel Kowalski takes an ambitious plot, and manages to pull off a book that both thrills and bores. As a fan of alternate history novels, I have a lot of respect for what he does here. Much of Alternate history revolves around the "What if." An author will take one moment in time, and change it just slightly, and allow the ball to roll off course in fascinating ways. Here, a lone man, lost in his own past, decides to attempt to make the world a better place. One of his goals is to prevent the sinking of the Titanic. Sadly, despite his plans, he only alters its fate by a few hours. His attempts allow one man to live, industrialist and war hero John Astor, who goes on to become President. He uses his influence to keep the US out of The Great War, allowing the German Empire and the Japanese Empire to become global superpowers. After multiple wars with Mexico, Texas leads another succession from the Union, giving rise to The Confederate States of America. Now, Joe Kennedy, agent for the Confederate Bureau of Investigation,   armed with the diary of the time traveler Wells found in the wreckage of Titanic, is attempting to set the course of the world right.

Sounds complicated, right? Well it is. Yet, the alternate history, the time traveling angle, the look at the political, social and technological changes weren’t the issue for this novel. Kowalski actually creates a fascinating world, full of intriguing concepts spanning the historical, scientific and metaphysical. The problem for me was everything else. Kowalski tacks on an internal power struggle within the CBI, a complicated chase across the country where Kennedy is being hunted by his former lover and the first women to achieve agent status, and honestly, I got totally lost. There were times where I wasn’t even sure who just died, which characters were where and why people were shooting, surrounding, blowing up and threatening. Allegiances changed faster than a con man playing three card Monte. Kennedy had side deals going with the Japanese Germans, British, shamanistic Indians, Negroes, The Union, mobsters, and I think maybe even a Samurai or two. For me, it all meshed into an indescribable miasma of concepts and action, and if I wasn’t so intrigued by where it was all going, I may have given up on it.

What kept me in the game were the fascinating concepts he was playing with. I have to admit, I am a sucker for the philosophy of time travel. Kowalski asks so many intriguing questions. If you knew that the time stream you where living in wasn’t the true time stream, how would affect your decisions? Could the horrors that wee coming be due your actions based on your knowledge? Just how much do little decisions and innocuous changes affect reality? Kowalski takes on these concepts and so many more. In reality, I should have loved this book. If the book was a bit leaner, with a more coherent plot in the thick of the novel, I could easily see this becoming one of my favorite all time alternate history novels. Kowalski definitely knows how to create characters that you become invested in. This was one of the reasons I was so disconcerted when I got lost within the plot, losing touch with characters that I actually cared about within the rapidly moving, and ever shifting framework of the tale. The Company of the Dead was a tough one for me. I could have probably spent a thousand words writing about things I loved about the book, and another thousand complaining about the things I hated. In the end, it’s a wonderful tale of alternate history and time travel set against the backdrop of The Titanic bookended around an overly long, overly elaborate and often boring and confusing mess of an action novel.

So, I am about to go on an ugly American rant. Being an ugly American, I feel entitled. Why when an author is not American but British or Australian or some denizen of the Empire which the sun never set on, do we tend to get a British narrator for a novel set mostly in America with the majority of the characters being American? I don’t believe that American pronunciations are inherently better, but if a book is set in America with American characters, I would like a narrator that pronounces things like an American. There is something disconcerting to me to hear a man with a deep southern draw say "cu-PILL-a-ree" instead of CAP-ill-air-ee." I understand that Peter Marinker is a respected voice and stage actor but his narration didn’t work for me and  for a nearly 25 hour production, I would have loved a narrator that made me want to listen, and not one that I continued listening despite of. I hate giving the "I just didn’t like their voice" kind of reviews. I try to give well reasoned explanations for why I didn’t like a narrator. Yet, between the use of British pronunciations in American accents, an awful lot of mouth sounds, minimal character differentiation in a novel with a lot of characters and just an overall unengaging performance, "I didn’t like their voice" is about the best I can do. My issues with the narration was enough to get me to wonder  how many of my issues with the novel itself were due to the writing, or whether I would have actually been more engaged with a dfferent narrator. Sadly, that’s a question that can’t be answered. 

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One response

25 09 2013
dog eared copy/Tanya

Hmmm, it sounds like this was a situation wherein no one (casting director, narrator,…) did a pre-read. I’m only speculsting of course, but I can’t help but wonder if the book would work better in print, with the brain’s ability to retroactively order things and, the ability to reference back to previous material. I think I’ll keep an eye out for the print edition as it does sound interesting.

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