The novel “Company Town” by Madeline Ashby was published for the first time in 2016.
Go Jung-Hwa works as a bodyguard for sex workers in New Arcadia, a city built on the Atlantic Ocean around an old oil rig. She accompanies them to their “dates” to make sure that nothing bad happens to them, but that type of protection is not enough because there seems to be a serial killer who’s targeting them.
The moment is difficult for Hwa but her life has always been difficult. For this reason, she is surprised when she receives a job offer from Zachariah Lynch, who bought New Arcadia and is investing in a new development project. His son Joel received death threats that are definitely out of the ordinary since they appear to come from another timeline and need a bodyguard.
In a society where it’s normal to have cybernetic implants, being completely free of them means to be strange and this is what Go Jung-Hwa, Hwa for everybody, is. She suffers from Sturge-Weber syndrome with a series of physical consequences that accompany her throughout her life because it’s a congenital disorder. Her mother felt it wasn’t worth paying cybernetic implants for Hwa and the relationship between the two of them is one of the burdens weighing on Hwa.
“Company Town” has an important cyberpunk element which is developed among other things through the possible security risks existing in cybernetic systems. In the connected society of the beginning of the 21st century, not only classic computers but also portable devices such as smartphones and lately the ones for the Internet of Things are at risk of intrusion by attackers, in the future the danger is even greater because it will concern directly the body of humans with implants. Hwa has a number of disadvantages due to her lack of implants but is immune to that type of hacking and that’s why Zachariah Lynch hires her as the bodyguard for his son Joel.
For a relatively short novel, “Company Town” has a really complex plot that contains a number of elements. In some ways it’s a mystery because Hwa is involved in the case of sex workers killed and subsequently in the case of death threats to Joel Lynch. The strong point in my opinion lies in the this particular world-building since the story unfolds in a city created from an oil rig recovering after a terrible tragedy thanks to Zachariah Lynch’s project. That backstory helps to give depth to the plot and to various characters, with the inhabitants who suffered that tragedy also by losing loved ones and have a new hope thanks to the new owner of New Arcadia.
Hwa is the absolute protagonist of the novel and this for me was by far the biggest problem because she’s a type of character I struggle to stand. She has objective problems because of her health problems and a mother who deserves only to be physically eliminated but all this has negative consequences on her attitudes and actions. The heaviness of all this is a factor that has prevented me from appreciating a novel that apart from this subjective evaluation has its merits.
Madeline Ashby has perhaps included too many elements with an unbalanced result. It could be one of the rare cases where a longer novel would have allowed a more balanced development of the various elements and the many events that make up the plot. The pace ends up being sometimes frenzied, with a lot of action and continuous twists. Maybe even the protagonist would have been less heavy if the author had given more space to the Lynch family with its complexities and to Hwa’s boos Daniel Síofra.
In the end, my subjective impression about “Company Town” is strongly conditioned by my difficulty in standing Hwa and her problems. I have to say that she’s not a whiner and that allowed me to reach the end of the novel without nausea but her personal story is really heavy for me. A positive impact with Hwa would certainly offer a much more pleasant reading.