Company Town

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Company TownCompany Town by Madeline Ashby
Published: 2016
Narrated by: Cecelia Kim
Length: 08:58 (285 pages)

This is a science fiction crime novel that takes place in a city built on a giant oil rig off the east coast of Canada. It’s the near future, and it’s incredible rare to find someone who hasn’t augmented their body in some way, by changing how they look or enhancing their physical strength or cognitive abilities. The protagonist, Go Jung-Hwa, is the only person on the rig that is unaltered. She works as a bodyguard for members of the sex trade, which is now legal and highly regulated but is still not without certain dangers.

Hwa’s unaugmented body is an asset, as it means she can’t be hacked. She also happens to have Sturge-Weber Syndrome, a condition that has left a large birthmark over most of her face. She has developed a slightly bitter outlook in life as a result of this, and it’s contributed to her feelings of isolation, but it also happens to make her invisible to facial recognition software. Because of these contextually-advantageous disadvantages, and her combat training, she is offered a job to protect the fifteen-year-old heir of a local wealthy energy tycoon, a man who essentially owns the town. After she takes the job, attempts on their lives are made, people start dying, and she works to find out who’s behind it all.

I loved the cyberpunk setting. At times this felt like a Raymond Chandler plot done on the set of Bladerunner, and it’s full of interesting ideas. Almost so many ideas that it starts to feel a bit thinly spread, but it was still enjoyable throughout. I found the murder mystery aspect of this quite exciting, and many of the characters were great. Hwa is a complete badass with some intriguing inner turmoil, even if you have to suspend disbelieve somewhat when it comes to the fight scenes. The idea that an unaugmented bodyguard could be successful in a city full of, potentially, supernaturally strong and agile baddies seems unlikely to me, but it wasn’t something that stood out as an obvious problem while reading.

The ending was by far the weakest part of the story. It was a convoluted mess that I don’t think I completely understood, to be honest, and I can’t be bothered to go back and re-read it. Then it turned into a disappointingly cliché Hollywood ending which completely undermined everything in the story about Hwa overcoming and beginning to accept her facial imperfection. The plot was really engaging until that point, so it was sad to see it fall apart.

This was one of the featured books in the 2017 Canada Reads competition, a ‘battle of the books’, that the CBC has been holding for the past fifteen years now. I always hear mention of this in passing on the radio or on signs at local bookstores, but I’ve never given it much attention. I have a vague goal of reading more Canadian literature, something I have really neglected in the past, so I thought I’d tune in this year.

Five Canadian celebrities choose a book to champion in the competition, and they meet for a series of moderated live radio roundtables to debate which book of the five every Canadian should read. I listened to the first episode, and I don’t think I’m a fan of the format, but I like that it publicizes Canadian authors. This year’s winner was Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis, which I’m still deciding whether I’ll read. It’s obviously a novel about dogs, and I don’t think I want to read a novel about dogs. We’ll see.

Despite my gripes about the ending, I did really enjoy my time with this novel.

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