[Book review] The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett

The Company Man by Robert Jackson BennettWashington state is the new “in place” in fantasy fiction.  From Cherie Priest to Kat Richardson, many more novels are being set in the Pacific Northwest.  The Company Man is no exception, creating a fictional city near the ocean in Washington and populating it with both machines and machinations.

Cyril Hayes occupies an odd position in McNaughton corporation—part of it, but operating in its more shadowy corners.  With a war brewing between company men and union workers, a horrible crime occurs.  A trolley arrives at its station with eleven dead bodies in it, and all of them are union men.

Now Hayes must solve the murders and put an end to the growing unrest in the city.  Tensions rise, and it’s almost impossible to know who to trust.  But the problems run deeper than anybody suspects.  Something is stirring within the great city—something that is heard in whispers and seen in dark corners.  And whether it bodes good or ill remains to be seen.

The Company Man is a complex—and convoluted—mystery.  There’s the question of the eleven dead bodies, the question of the union boss’s identity, the question of a terrifying being that appears and deafens people, and the question of what’s really beneath the city.  It all ties together in the end, but it’s a lot to keep track of.  With so many plot threads, a couple have to fade into the background every now and then, and it can be a little odd to be reading along and suddenly realize that the story has shifted back to something that hasn’t been touched on in a few chapters.

I would have liked to have seen a little more balance in juggling all of these things, especially as it concerns the “what’s under the city” issue.  There are a few hints dropped early on that are important, and then just a few passing mentions throughout the novel until nearly the end.  It felt a little lopsided, but not so much that I would call it a flaw.  I still enjoyed getting the bottom of all the mysteries.

Initially, I had a little trouble getting into this book.  The main mystery—the dead men on the trolley—doesn’t happen until around a hundred pages into the book, and what comes before is, in large part, set-up and worldbuilding.  It comes in handy later on, and it definitely reinforces a lot of the events that happen later, so readers should stick it out even if the novel seems to be moving slowly at first.

Bennett takes a risk in creating a main character that is rather unlikeable, but it does pay off in the end.  He’s painted originally as a drunk and a drug addict, as well as having an abrasive personality, but eventually readers get a good explanation for why he’s like that.  Not only that, but this initial portrayal allows Hayes to really grow and change believably over the course of the novel.  By the end of the story, he’s undergone some dramatic changes, and drastic though they may be, they work.

The other main character, Samantha Fairbanks, is a good foil for Hayes, being organized and methodical to his slapdash and haphazard ways.  The author manages to portray her as someone who’s in over her head in a strange town without resorting to the typical “helpless female” stereotype.  In fact, she’s pretty bold when push comes to shove, but she’s also smart enough to realize when she needs to step back.

I think that my favorite character was Garvey, Hayes’s policeman friend.  In a corrupt city, he’s a man trying to uphold the law and do the right thing.  Bennett writes him with a world-weary exhaustion, counting the number of murders in a year and hoping to solve (or “file”) the cases for the closure it gives.  His struggles throughout the story are painful to watch, and yet you’re always rooting for him.

This book was nothing like what I thought it would be.  There’s fantasy, mystery, a touch of steampunk, and hardboiled detective work.  As odd as that mix sounds, it works, and works very well.  The Company Man is one of those unique books where you read it and really have no idea what to expect from one page to the next, and it’s that freshness that makes this novel succeed.

This book was provided by the publisher as an e-ARC through NetGalley.

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