Company Town by Madeline Ashby

This is one of those books where the concept given to you by the back-cover blurb really doesn’t adequately explain how the book is going to be. The themes I thought it was going to tackle, it didn’t necessarily, but it did take on others that were equally satisfying. The books brings in a lot of different plot threads, weaving them all together into… something. They don’t quite all come together as one, but they do connect and intermingle. Overall I feel like this was a really ambitious book that fell only just shy of the mark, and I really appreciate that ambition.

Company Town is the story of Go Jung-Hwa, a Korean-Canadian woman living on an enormous city-sized oil rig off the coast of Canada. Hwa is one of the only people on the rig who is not genetically or technologically enhanced in some way. She works as a bodyguard for a unionized group of sex workers until she comes to the attention of the mysterious new owners of the town – the Lynch family/corporation. They hire her to bodyguard and train their youngest son, Joel Lynch. Joel is intended by his father to take over the company when he passes away. Hwa keeps him safe through threats to his school, a serial killer in the city, and more.

First off, let me say that I love the characters in this book. Hwa is a great protagonist, and Joel and Daniel, one of the other Lynch employees, make great secondary characters to support her. Hwa is complicated and real and broken in all the right ways. As I was reading this book, I was thinking how easy it would have been for the author to make the protagonist a boring-ass middle-aged white man, instead of a disabled/chronically ill woman of color. It would very much have been like a lot of other thrillers then, and I honestly don’t know that I would have liked it as much. It’s a good story on its own, but Hwa is really what makes it come alive.

I liked the five-minutes-in-the-future setting. None of it feels particularly far-off. The technological advancements are certainly not small, but at the same time, they feel so much like they could be right around the corner (especially with the recent CRISPR news and so on). In my own writing, I’m finding it harder and harder to make things that feel like the far future; Company Town isn’t explicit in when it’s set, but it could be any time in the next hundred, two hundred years maybe. Or it could be next week. You just don’t know. But I like how the technology is given consideration – every significant technological achievement in the real world sets off drastic social changes, so why shouldn’t it be so in the future?

Where this book gets a little off the rails is, for me, in the pacing. There’s a lot of scene transitions in the book that feel very abrupt given the amount of time that’s passing, or sometimes it’s really not clear how much time has passed at all. The ending feels rushed… or so I thought, until I realized that there was kind of a second ending, and that one felt very very slow. You think everything is all wrapped up and then you realize it’s not and then… you kind of wish it had been left at the first “ending”. The synopsis of the book given by your preferred bookseller or the back cover says, “increasingly intense death threats seemingly coming from another timeline?” But here’s the thing… the book gives no indication that the threats are from another timeline. None whatsoever. Until the very end when the author… tells you that they are.

These things are not dealbreakers by any means, I want to clarify that. I enjoyed the book a great deal, even taking these things into consideration. It hits so many sweet spots for me: rad lady heroes, progressive future, exactly the right amount of romance and sex, suspense keyed up until the reader is just tense enough… but I felt like I ended up having to take the sour notes along with the sweet ones. For me, these technical flaws were forgivable, but I could see how for other readers, they might not be. For a really ambitious piece of work and a solid story with great characters, I’ll gladly put up with some minorly flawed writing. For characters I hated, or for worse writing, maybe I wouldn’t have kept reading, or maybe I wouldn’t have enjoyed it. That’s up to you.

I want to know more about the future of Company Town, or what’s going on in the world outside it. I want to know how Joel grows into his role as the leader of Lynch Ltd., and I want to know how the relationship between Hwa and Daniel develops. I don’t know if Ashby is planning more books in this world, but I really hope she is. Writing flaws can always be worked out in future books, after all.

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