Title: Company Town
Plot Type: Dystopian Futuristic Mystery with Elements of Romance and Horror
Ratings: Violence—4; Sensuality—4; Humor—2-3
Publisher and Titles: Tor (5/17/2016)
>> Tower One (aka Metabolist): a "rusting honeycomb of containers." It's the oldest, most decrepit tower and has little or no security, and it's the tower in which the series heroine lives—in a squat on a condemned floor.
>> Tower Two (aka Viridian): "glass bubbles and greenery piled like a stack of river rocks." This tower houses the school and the hospital, and it has farm floors (where crops are planted). It also has real trees and plants—not fake ones like the other towers.
>> Tower Three (aka Synth): constructed of "biocrete and healing polymers." This is the location of the offices of Belle du Jour, the sex workers union. Its location is not far from the ruins of the old rig
>> Tower Four (aka Bentham): "gleaming black with solar paint." This tower has two rings of units: the outer, which faces out to sea, and the inner, with more space as compensation for the lack of view. The two rings rotate around each other every day. Bentham is known as a party tower.
>> Tower Five (aka Emergent): This tower is the furthest out. It's the tower in which the owners of the city reside and work so it has state of the art technology and is the most aesthetically beautiful.
Most of the men in New Arcadia are riggers who do the heavy work down below. Most of the women are sex workers with clients from all levels of society. Other jobs include the usual types that you'd find in any city (e.g., shop keepers, teachers, doctors). The sex workers' organization is called the Belle du Jour system. They are unionized, and part of their contract requires that bodyguards accompany them while on the job. The novel's half-Korean heroine—Go Jung-hwa (aka Hwa)—is one of those bodyguards.
Most of the people in this world rely on bio-engineered augmentations and implants to keep them attractive and healthy, so technology is an all-important part of their lives. One of the most common enhancement procedures is to have implants placed in your eyes so that they become multi-lensed cameras. Just about everyone has some type of augmentation, but not Hwa, who is totally organic—pure human through and through—not by choice, though, but by economic circumstance. She was born to an abusive single mother who has always dealt poorly with Hwa's numerous physical problems: She suffers from Sturge-Weber syndrome, which results in unpredictable seizures and glaucoma (she's already blind in one eye). Also, she has a gigantic purple "stain" (a birthmark) that runs from her face all the way down the left side of her body. To give you an idea of how evil Hwa's mother is, she named Hwa after a purple flower that is the same color as Hwa's stain. The author never names Hwa's father, but she does provide a major clue to his identity late in the book.
Ashby is not an info-dump author; instead, she carefully slides all of the details about New Arcadia and the bio-engineered augmentations into the narrative in a natural manner. This means that you don't get all the details at once, so be prepared to pay attention so that you can mentally pull everything together. Company Town is definitely not a book for a lazy reader, but once you begin to pick up on the details, the fresh and inventive mythology makes this book a pleasure to read.
New Arcadia is a city-sized oil rig off the coast of the Canadian Maritimes, now owned by one very wealthy, powerful, byzantine family: Lynch Ltd.
Hwa is of the few people in her community (which constitutes the whole rig) to forgo bio-engineered enhancements. As such, she's the last truly organic person left on the rig—making her doubly an outsider, as well as a neglected daughter and bodyguard extraordinaire. Still, her expertise in the arts of self-defense and her record as a fighter mean that her services are yet in high demand. When the youngest Lynch needs training and protection, the family turns to Hwa. But can even she protect against increasingly intense death threats seemingly coming from another timeline?
Meanwhile, a series of interconnected murders threatens the city's stability and heightens the unease of a rig turning over. All signs point to a nearly invisible serial killer, but all of the murders seem to lead right back to Hwa's front door. Company Town has never been the safest place to be—but now, the danger is personal.
A brilliant, twisted mystery, as one woman must evaluate saving the people of a town that can't be saved, or saving herself.
Here's how Kirkus Review summarizes the plot: "A teenage genius and his bodyguard uncover unpleasant corporate secrets and face a potentially otherworldly threat in this near-future sci-fi thriller."
And here's how Ashby describes the plot in an on-line interview: "The Terminator meets The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.…In a floating city, on a dying ocean, one all-too-human woman hunts a post-human serial killer bent on changing the course of history."
Recently the rich and powerful Lynch family purchased New Arcadia, and as the story begins, take-over day has arrived. Hwa has been assigned to protect her union representative's two assistants as they join the crowd that watches the Lynch family arrive. But then she spots a sniper with a rifle pointing into the crowd, and she goes into attack mode—an action that will change her life forever. The "sniper" turns out to be Daniel Síofra, a super-enhanced, top-level Lynch security expert who is holding a long-range microphone—not a gun. Daniel is impressed with Hwa's martial arts skills (and because she nearly takes him down with her bare hands), so he hires her to be the bodyguard of 15-year-old Joel Lynch, the genius son of Zachariah, the family patriarch. Zachariah has received a number of written threats against Joel's life that seem to come from the future, so he wants Hwa to be with Joel every time he leaves Tower Five, which means that she has to go back to high school—the same high school she dropped out of several years ago.
As the plot plays out, someone begins murdering Hwa's friends—the prostitutes she formerly guarded—and the surviving sex workers vilify her for abandoning them. (The brutal murder scenes are described in graphic detail.) Then, attacks against Joel begin, and Hwa finds herself working night and day to track down her friends' killer (nights) and to keep Joel safe (days).
At the same time, Hwa is building friendships with Joel, who is always by her side, and Daniel, who is always in her earpiece. I suspected from the beginning that Hwa and Daniel were going to take their relationship beyond just friendship, but that process is slow to develop—not the ridiculously instantaneous, fall-into-bed lust that so often occurs in urban fantasy. In fact, Ashby deliberately takes her time, allowing the relationship to blossom naturally, with one or two setbacks just to keep both of them cautiously holding back on their emotions.
Ashby does a great job with characterization. Hwa is a terrific heroine, with her tough-as-nails exterior and her sad and bitter inner thoughts, which we are privy to in a number of well-written interior monologues that are not the long, whiny narratives that many authors inflict on their readers. Joel is delightful—a smart, witty, and curious teenager who is forced to rethink his long-held beliefs about his family when dark secrets begin to emerge about what is really going on behind the scenes in New Arcadia. Daniel is a perfect foil for Hwa because he treats her as an equal, never patronizes her, and ignores the physical disabilities that have always defined her life.
Just one nitpick: Although the basic theme of the book deals with Hwa's painful attempts to stop letting her disabilities overwhelm her outlook on life, the "from the future" plot elements that pop up during the big showdown scene at the end actually undercut this theme and detract from the best part of the story—the gritty reality of Hwa’s everyday life New Arcadia. Although I enjoyed the book immensely, the first part is much stronger than the ending.
So…great world-building, wonderful characterization, and suspenseful plot. What more could you ask for? If you are looking for a new take on dystopian, futuristic fiction, give this one a try. Click HERE to go to this novel's Amazon.com page where you can read an excerpt by clicking on the cover art.
FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Company Town is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through NetGalley. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are strictly my own.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer, futurist, speaker, and immigrant living in Toronto. She writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She has written narrative scenarios and science fiction prototypes for organizations like Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, The Atlantic Council, and others. Her short fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her other essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity, and Tor.com. For more information on futurism, click HERE to go to Ashby's web site. Click HERE to read an on-line interview with Ashby in which she discusses Company Town.