Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines imagines a modern world where the U.S. Civil War never happened and without that war, slavery remained legal in South. The story follows a young black man named Victor (one of many aliases he uses), a former slave himself who had been given freedom in exchange for a position with the US Marshals capturing and returning escaped slaves to their owners. Victor’s latest case feels off; his handler is acting strange and the information contained in the file doesn’t add up. Is Victor being set up? Who can he trust?
I thought the world building in Underground Airlines was top-notch. Outside of mystery and crime novels, some of my favorite books to read have stories that deal with alternate timelines. Seeing as Winters throws the Civil War out the window, a lot of modern history ends up a bit skewed. As mentioned above, US states Alabama, Carolina (North/South do not exist), Mississippi and Louisiana permit slavery (commonly known as “The Hard Four”) enjoying record profits in many labor intensive industries. Historical figures’ origins become altered as well. For example, Jesse Owens still attended the 1936 Olympics, but shortly after became a vocal detractor of America’s tolerance of slavery and defected to Russia. Also, James Brown – a runaway slave – escaped into Canada and became a huge international recording star north of the border.
Ben Winters is a hell of a writer as evidenced by his Last Policeman trilogy – another high-concept story (a detective trying to solve a murder before an asteroid kills everything on Earth) – and while he continues to showcase his talents, I felt this one didn’t connect with me as much as his earlier work. It’s a dynamite idea but I felt the plot was a little lacking. I had a hard time really investing in Victor’s troubles, despite some well-placed flashbacks that help to flesh out his beginnings. Although he hit me with a hell of a twist at the end that I did not see coming, the journey to get there didn’t really blow me away.
Winters’ remains one of my favorite authors and I look forward to whatever he’s got coming down the pipe. If this is your first experience, you owe it to yourself to check out his Last Policeman trilogy.