Madeline Ashby’s Machine Dynasty novels are inventive and colorful, but Company Town (2016) steps up her storytelling chops another notch, without sacrifice to the creativity, edginess, and idea-dense nature of her earlier work. The future city of New Arcadia is composed of five, connected oil-rig towers in the Canadian North Atlantic, where Hwa serves as a bodyguard for the city’s escort service. Her circumstances change, however, when New Arcadia is bought by Lynch, Ltd., a powerful corporation that promptly hires Hwa — a rare, unaugmented human — to protect their heir apparent, Joel, from death threats. With little more than her combat skills and local street smarts to go by, Hwa soon finds that protecting Joel from unseen evils will be extremely difficult — and that she herself may be a more crucial focus of New Arcadia’s intrigues than she ever would have imagined.
Company Town is a quick, slick future noir, anchored by the vivid, futuristic world-building of New Arcadia, an unforgettable setting. As usual, Ashby’s writing is full of eye-popping visionary detail, depicting a gritty near-future that also points toward grander, deeper sense of wonder. It’s a rich world, ripe for further exploration should Ashby desire to do so. But where Company Town steps up its game is character. Hwa, in particular, is convincing and complex — disfigured, disabled, and a long-suffering victim of circumstance, she’s also tough, stubborn and likeable, an accessible window onto both this strange future and the underlying sociopolitical themes of the book, where the tilted playing boards of gender and class and power unfold. More evidence that Ashby just keeps getting better and better, Company Town is bracing, thought-provoking, and memorable.