Covid-19. Ugh. We’re all sick and tired of it right now. It’s been a part of our lives for close to two years now, and yet it feels like a lot longer. God only knows when the threat will recede long enough for us to return to any sort of a normal life. Human nature being what it is, I fear we will be living with this virus for some time to come. While I have spent much of my time since March 2020 reading and writing about the books I’ve read, I have purposefully stayed away from any works of fiction that reference the current pandemic. It’s not that I’m a coward or anything–I read enough about it online (from reputable sources, I should add)–but I prefer my reading material to take me away from current events rather than leave me stuck in the present. Having said that, a lot of the books I’ve read in recent months reflect badly on humanity as a whole: murder mysteries, conspiracy thrillers, dystopian science-fiction and fantasy, the whole gamut. Make of this what you will.
All of this leads me to The Warden, written by English dark fiction author Jon Richter. Against what I perceived to be my better judgment, I took on reading and reviewing Richter‘s book for Blackthorn Book Tours. I thank all parties involved because this book is really something. It’s not a comfortable read by any stretch of the imagination, but it sure as hell is an intriguing one. It’s premise and plot, which I will get to shortly, propels the reader from one short but exquisitely paced chapter to the next. Depending on where you are in your life right now, this could either be the book for you, or not. I thought it might not be, but I was happy to be proved wrong.
The Warden begins with Eugene Dodd, a former police detective who, with a whole bunch of other individuals, were chosed my lottery to live in The Tower. The story begins in 2024, the virus has mutated to such a level that any trip outdoors, for whatever reason, is a death sentence. The current UK government, led by Prime Minister Arkwright (who took over after the death of her predecessor), has the entire country in a perpetual lockdown. Only the residents of The Tower could be classed as any way near safe from the virus. This is because they are assigned their own room, have their food delivered by robots on a daily basis, and can call other residents via SMART technology on the television sets. They are monitored by James, an omnipresent artificial intelligence created way back in 2020 by Felicity Herring on behalf of a company called Innovation Corporation. It was her view that James would overtake Alexa and Siri as the world’s most successful and available AI assistant. And that’s pretty much what happened. PIPs replaced iPhones and Android devices, and everyone seemed to get their hands on one. When Felicity and James come up with the idea of a SMART- controlled tower block as a form of experiment in disease control and monitoring, the government jumps at the chance and funds it.
Meanwhile, in The Tower itself, in 2024, Eugene witnesses the aftermath of the gruesome killing of the building’s human superintendent Curtis, the detective in him needs to find out the truth behind the man’s murder. His friend Boyd, a conspiracy theorist, suggests that all is not right with James and the outside world. Boyd gets his information, such as it is, from Natter, a social media website that I think keeps an eye on its users more than they know. The only other person Eugene chats with on a regular basis is Caroline. While Boyd was once Eugene’s partner in their previous life, Eugene has never met Caroline face to face. Their rooms are blocked off from all light, they don’t meet any of the other residents: they are in fact prisoners of sorts, and James is their de-facto warden. Curtis’ murder forces the agoraphobic and deeply traumatised Eugene to seek a way out of his room and discover the truth behind The Tower and James itself.
Back in 2020, Felicity discovers that James has more power and influence than even she could have foreseen. The two timelines ultimately converge in a showdown that has to be read to be believed.
Jon Richter has created a red-hot novel of imagination and frightening plausibility. It’s violent and the characters involved are rarely out of danger. But the most important thing for me is, the story is so real and so well put together that much of what went on from 2020 onward could very well happen in our own timeline. It may very well be happening, if you believe the internet. And why wouldn’t you?