Writing a time travel novel is a big endeavor. There’s a slew of things you can mess up, and even one loose end can unravel the entire plausibility of your plot.
Needless to say, when I read the premise of this book (alternate history, time travel, some guy trying to save the Titanic) and that it was a debut novel 15 years in the making by a practicing OB/GYN, I didn’t really expect much. Even a few hundred pages into this behemoth of a book, I still wasn’t really sure which way things would fall. Luckily, they fell toward the side of awesome. I found myself really enjoying this novel, churning through the last few hundred pages excitedly.
As you might expect from 750 pages of time-travel fiction, the plot gets pretty complicated. It’s hard to explain my thoughts on the book without a somewhat lengthy set-up, so bear with me.
Things start out fairly straightforward. A man named Wells has traveled back in time and finagled his way aboard the Titanic. He’s from our present and he’s attempting to “correct” history by preventing the ship’s sinking. While he does manage to affect history and avoid the iceberg that famously brought the boat down, the ship strikes a different iceberg while correcting course and sinks all the same. Thus, some of the people who died on the Titanic now no longer died, and history changes.
John Jacob Astor IV is the new survivor most crucial to the plot. After returning to America, the influential tycoon involves the US in a diplomatic feud with England, which results in America staying out of World War I. Flash forward 100 years to 2012. World War II never happened. Most of the globe is split between the German and Japanese empires. The United States didn’t survive a second secession of the South and the Confederacy is now a nation of its own, largely in bed with Germany. The North, however, is largely occupied by Japanese forces. There is no active fighting between the empires, but things are tense and Cold War-like.
Joseph Kennedy Jr. (who couldn’t have died in a WWII that didn’t occur) has attempted some unsuccessful political bids and is now the head of the Confederate Bureau of Investigation. He’s been working on a secret project called Camelot, a gambit move intended to re-unite the USA through causing a clash between the empires. But Kennedy has deeper secrets: through a particular chain of events, he has access to the very same time machine as Wells. As the book opens, the Camelot plot, which involved lots of double agents and similar tactics, has broken down. However, things are still set in motion to trigger a great, and likely apocalyptic, war between the two sides–with America as the battle ground.
I’m oversimplifying things a lot here, Kowalski planned out everything fastidiously. The book is rife with historical figures and events, many skewed due to his alternate history. It doesn’t read like someone read a couple entries on Wikipedia and fictionalized some things, or dropped actual names into a plot that would work fine without them. Kowalski obviously did his homework, then took the time to properly synthesize portions of history into a fiction with clear lines of plausibility.
The main plot that follows features Kennedy and clan scrambling from now war-torn New York City to make a hail mary mission to the time machine (which is located in Nevada), in the hopes of correcting time and undoing the only history they’ve known. Not really sure what will happen, but assured that if they do nothing things will end in ruin (via a test run of the time machine to the future), they opt for a possible chance of freeing the world from doom, even if would result in they themselves ceasing to exist.
Just like Wells before them, Kennedy and his team believe the key to repairing history is… to save the Titanic. They concluded that Wells had brought the Titanic down, not attempted to preserve it. The dramatic irony this injects into the plot is palpable and satisfying. It was perhaps this twist alone that the book won me over. Dramatic irony is easy to abuse or otherwise misuse, but when executed properly it can do wonders for a book. In Kowalski’s case, it propels his characters nicely, and furthermore ratchets up the tension for the reader the closer the character get to achieving their goal. Eventually I found myself genuinely excited while reading, not something I had expected going into this book. Then, as the complexity of the plot’s workings became more visible, Kowalski introduces some very interesting and slightly brain-bending play with time travel and paradoxes, at which point I was all-in.
Further explaining the plot, though, or what those paradoxes might be would take forever and spoil too much. Suffice to say, as things move on, it becomes clear that Kowalski did an impeccable job with his plotting–many things crop up later in the book that I only then realized I had been clued into hundreds of pages earlier. But I rushed past the dangling hints while racing along with Kennedy in his urgent race to save the Titanic.
When I agreed to read this book, I didn’t think it was going to be very good, but figured just maybe it would at least be entertaining. It did manage that, but also managed to impress me. Kowalski’s never going to win any awards for his prose. There’s plenty of clunker lines like this: “He hid the dread behind the rampart of his face.” But when a book’s plot structure is as tight as Kowalski has delivered here, that’s fine with me. If Kowalski writes another book, I’ll read it. I just hope he takes his time with it and gives the particulars the care he gave Company of the Dead–even that means waiting fifteen years.