Company Town takes place in the unique setting of an oil rig the size of a city off the coast of Newfoundland. After the original rig is consumed by flames, New Arcadia is established, built by the powerful Lynch family who plaster their logo on every tall building. When we meet our protagonist, Go Jung-hwa, she is working as a bodyguard for the United Sex Workers of Canada and teaching self-defense classes on the side. Subject to a disease that makes her prone to seizures and marks half of her body with a birthmark, Hwa is an outcast in a society filled with augmented human beings. Where others have cameras built into their eyes, implants in their brains, and vaccines for countless diseases, Hwa is completely organic.
It is because of her organic status that Hwa is conscripted by Zachariah Lynch, the patriarch of Lynch Ltd. to act as personal bodyguard for his teenage heir, Joel. She is unable to be hacked, controlled, or cheated. What was once a symbol of her status as poor has become her greatest asset.
No stranger to mixing woman with machine, Madeline Ashby, author of the Machine Dynasty series, continues experimenting with questions of what it means to be human in an increasingly artificial world. She constructs a fascinating setting, extrapolating the reaches of human nature, technology, and what happens when the two intermix.
Ashby’s world is new and innovative, with enough references to Canadian culture to firmly root the setting here in the True North, but not so many that you begin to roll your eyes and wonder which Tim Hortons all the moose in toques are gathering at before their hockey game.
The book is strongest in its action sequences. It’s no secret that Hwa kicks all kinds of butt. The fight scenes are numerous and crystal clear. I always know where Hwa is, where her opponent is, and what awesome way she’s taking him down. This clarity, unfortunately, does not extend much further than that. More than once at the beginnings and endings of chapters, I found myself wondering if I’d missed something, re-scanning the previous pages, and finding no signposts as to what is going on.
Hwa ran for him. He grabbed her by the shoulders. Hwa’s right heel came down hard on his. The instep deflated under the pressure. He howled. She elbowed him hard under the ribs and spun halfway out of his grip.
—Madeline Ashy, Company Town
The biggest weakness has got to be the characters. The main cast are fleshy enough, but the problem lies in the excessive number of secondary characters. If you want to keep track of everyone, keep a list beside you to jot down their name, description, and how they relate to Hwa. Otherwise, you’ll be asking, who is this again?
Hwa’s character is the most interesting. She doesn’t suffer from the all-too-common main character syndrome: she has personality, she’s flawed, she’s likeable and dislikeable, she has psychological hang-ups. In short: she’s a person. But the thing that makes Hwa who she is, how she defines herself, is by her biological-ness, and therefore by her disease. Sturge-Weber causes seizures and produced a huge birthmark (what Hwa calls a “stain”) down Hwa’s body. This is such a fundamental part of Hwa, and yet, there is no instance in the book where it a weakness to her. She never experiences a seizure, she only thinks she does. Once. It’s an unfired Chekhov’s gun.
Based solely on Ashby’s imagination and the incredible setting, the book is worth reading. The clean and exciting action sequences are fun, and there’s even a bit of blood and guts if you’re into that sort of thing (I am). Company Town is ultimately a singular ride through one vision of a frightening Canadian future.