I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Company Town by Madeline Ashby
Published by Tor Books on May 17 2016
Genres: Adult, Science fiction
The nitty-gritty: A stellar science fiction mystery with awesome characters and some unexpected romance.
“I’ll call you before you go to sleep,” he said. “I can see it, when your heart slows down. That’s how I know when to call. I keep your heart—the icon of your heart—in one corner of my vision. All the time.”
Her stomach flipped over and tried to exit through her fingertips. Adrenaline jangled down her arms like music. Her mouth went dry and all she could taste was the burn of the drug in her throat.
“See, there? It skipped.”
I’ve had Company Town on my radar for almost exactly two years—I did have to go back through my blog posts and check—since June 2014 when the book was being published by Angry Robot. I had featured it in a Waiting on Wednesday back then, and even though the book has since changed publishers, the cover has miraculously stayed the same. I remember wondering what had happened to it when it fell off the Angry Robot website, and so I was very excited to find it had a new publishing home. And wow, I’m so glad I read it! What a wonderful surprise this was, and you can bet I’m going to go back and check out Ashby’s earlier books.
Company Town takes place in the city of New Arcadia in a not-too-distant future, where in the center of town, the remains of an old oil rig that blew up several years ago are surrounded now by five towers where the citizens of New Arcadia live and work. Go Jung-hwa, or Hwa for short, is a bodyguard for the United Sex Workers of Canada, where she watches out for the girls who work for Mistress Séverine. But the future of New Arcadia is uncertain, due to the imminent takeover of the rich and powerful Lynch family. Hwa isn’t too keen on the Lynch family taking over the city, but when she’s approached by a man named Daniel Síofra who works for them, she reluctantly agrees to take over the job of bodyguard for their fifteen-year-old heir, a precocious boy named Joel. Hwa pretends to be a student so she can attend high school classes with Joel, and on their off-hours she teaches him self-defense.
But after an attack at school, Hwa realizes that someone is after Joel, and when Hwa’s friends from her former job start dying in horrible ways, she knows she’s going to need all her resources—as well as Daniel’s help—to figure out who is behind the murders. And just what is the Lynch family up to anyway? Hwa is determined to unravel all the mysteries, even if it kills her.
Madeline Ashby is one of those writers who gives the reader just enough information to let us put the pieces of the mystery together ourselves without hitting us over the head with lengthy explanations and info-dumps. I absolutely loved her understated writing style, which is both simple and elegant and fits perfectly with the story she’s telling. The story started out a little slow for me, but it was only because I didn’t understand the unfamiliar terms Ashby uses. It didn’t take long, though, for this book to really grow on me, and before I knew it I was completely immersed in the world. Ashby has created a fascinating city full of futuristic architecture, including the five towers, each with its own style. In one of the towers, concentric rings of apartments circle each other in opposite directions, which gives the residents a continually changing set of neighbors. The fact that the old oil rig still stands in the center of all these towers, dilapidated and no longer in use, is a constant reminder of the accident that killed Hwa’s brother.
In the world of New Arcadia, most people have artificial enhancements and surgeries that make them more attractive or resistant to illness, but Hwa is unique: she is “unedited” and pure, free of any of these enhancements. Because she’s had to rely on her own skills, she’s become a kick-ass woman who can definitely hold her own in a fight. Hwa’s mother was so disappointed when she was born with Sturge-Weber disease that she refused to spend money on enhancements for Hwa. Therefore, Hwa has gone her entire life listening to her mother call her “ugly” (among other unflattering names), and she’s come to believe it. Hwa dreads people seeing her “stain,” and it isn’t until she meets Daniel that she begins to realize she has more to offer than simply muscle.
Ashby’s story has a strong murder mystery element to it, as a serial killer appears to be on the loose in New Arcadia, killing sex workers who are connected to Hwa. I loved the author’s pacing as Hwa gradually gathers clues, which lead her to a startling discovery about the evil Lynch family.
But it was the characters that really made this story shine, particularly Hwa, Joel and Daniel. Joel was a delightful character, a young teenager who has the huge burden of being the future heir of the Lynch family. But that doesn’t stop him from being a happy-go-lucky boy who’s personality only gets better when Hwa comes into his life. I adored their friendship and their sarcastic banter. Hwa and Daniel truly care for each other (but not in a romantic way—she’s too old for him!) and their relationship was simply delightful.
And Daniel—well, it was pretty clear almost from the beginning that there was a going to be a romance between Daniel and Hwa, but it was so subtly done that I have to say it’s one of the best romances I’ve read in some time. Hwa can’t believe that Daniel can actually see past her ugliness, and the raw moments between them when they both drop down their guards were extremely romantic.
The other character I have to mention is Hwa’s mother, Sunny. At first she seems like a horrible mother. She still says terrible things to her daughter whenever she sees her, but there is a moment when she reveals a secret about herself to Hwa that was so poignant, that I completely changed my mind about her. It takes some mad writing skills to make that happen, and boy does Ashby have those skills!
The last couple of chapters are exactly what I wanted, lots of action and danger, and I found myself worrying about what would happen to Hwa, Joel and Daniel. I wasn’t prepared for the ending, but I have to say it was immensely satisfying, and I finished the book with my heart racing and a smile on my face.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.