Company Town, by Madeline Ashby
Back when this book was first published in 2016, Go Jung-hwa became one of my all time favorite heroes.
Hwa is half-Korean and lives in a possible near future, in New Arcadia, a city-sized oil rig off the coast of the Canadian Maritimes. She’s tiny, but tough, a master of tae kwon do and other mad skills, not the least of which is an eye for spotting trouble before it erupts, and a swagger that is backed up by survival skills borne of a rough and impoverished childhood.
She’s also damaged. She was born with Sturge-Weber syndrome, with its associated potential for blindness and epileptic type seizures, and a huge, ugly “stain” that pours down one side of her face and neck. The only reason she wasn’t abandoned as a baby is that her mother, Sunny, missed the 12-week cut-off and was forced to keep her; an effort to place her up for adoption was thwarted because Sunny was told no one would want a baby like Hwa, not when they could buy a better baby elsewhere, “one that came pre-edited and perfect.” Besides, Sunny already had a beloved son, so she might as well keep Hwa and hope for the best. The best, that never came.
But Hwa is unique in another way. In a world where everyone sports bioengineered enhancements, Hwa is completely organic – no stimplants, no subscriptions, nothing that shows up on advanced surveillance sensors or data gatherers. This is not due to any philosophical tenet or strategic forethought, but because her mother refused to spend money on an unlovable daughter, and any upgrades now are way beyond Hwa’s pay range as a security escort for union sex workers.
What a remarkable character! And the storyline that allows Hwa to unfold is equally compelling. The youngest son of the powerful Lynch family, that effectively owns New Arcadia, is being groomed to inherit the family business, but he has to make it through high school, first. Hwa, who has come to the attention of the Lynch Corporation’s director of Urban Tactics, is hired as the boy’s bodyguard. While she is suspicious of the job offer, the money and perks are awfully hard to ignore, and the boy, Joel, actually seems like a good kid.
Hwa refuses to acquiesce to the Lynch Corporation’s way of doing things, however, and her independence wins her fans and enemies. But her past has already stacked the deck against her, and when her former clients – and the only friends she can claim – start to fall prey to a mysterious serial killer, Hwa feels honor bound to investigate. What she finds is not only horrifying but frighteningly personal.
I really can’t temper my enthusiasm for this book. It’s not just the flawed yet tenacious Hwa and the authentic juxtaposition of her extreme confidence in her abilities and the deeply buried belief that she is, indeed, truly unlovable, or the multi-faceted yet intricately intertwined storylines (and what better environment to spin those lines in than an isolated, floating city?). It’s also the other characters (even the slightest of them) and the emphasis put on them, along with the stratification of this insular but complex society, the corporate intrigue, the danger and allure of vulnerability, the tension between ruthlessness and compassion… Company Town is simply a remarkable accomplishment, eminently readable and completely captivating. Easily one of my favorite books of that year – and a rereading of it only reinforced that ranking.