Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

underground airlines

You know when you’ve had a book for ages before you read it, and then wish you’d read it sooner?  That was my feeling when I finished Underground Airlines, which I absolutely loved.

It is the present-day, and the world is as we know it. Except for one thing: slavery still exists.

Victor has escaped his life as a slave, but his freedom came at a high price. Striking a bargain with the government, he has to live his life working as a bounty hunter. And he is the best they’ve ever trained.

A mystery to himself, Victor tries to suppress his memories of his own childhood and convinces himself that he is just a good man doing bad work, unwilling to give up the freedom he is desperate to preserve. But in tracking his latest target, he can sense that that something isn’t quite right.

For this fugitive is a runaway holding something extraordinary. Something that could change the state of the country forever.

And in his pursuit, Victor discovers secrets at the core of his country’s arrangement with the system that imprisoned him, secrets that will be preserved at any cost.

Underground Airlines is set in a world very much like our own, except that slavery still exists, and whilst the detail of how and why this happened doesn’t bog down the story, I liked the little twists to our history that made this a plausible, if unpleasant, scenario.  Essentially, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated whilst he was the president-elect, and, as a result, the American Civil War didn’t happen, enabling slavery to continue in four states of the US – Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and (a unified) Carolina.  I also love the title of the novel, and the recurring metaphor of the Underground Airlines that runs throughout the novel.  I thought that this was a clever modernisation of the idea of the underground railroad – the covert operation that was used to move escaped slaves around the US and into a better life.

The main protagonist in the novel is Victor, and I think that he might be one of my favourite anti-heroes from recent reads.  A former slave, he escaped, but fell into government hands.  Rather than returning to his old life – if it can be called that – he now assists the authorities in tracking down those slaves that managed to escape and cross into the northern states.  Talk about a rock and a hard place.  I thought that Victor’s inner turmoil over his actions was portrayed brilliantly.  He doesn’t like what he does, but it’s a choice between that and returning to slavery himself, and that’s not really much of a choice at all, is it?  Whatever he does, he is fully aware of each and every one of those he’s returned to the slave states – 209 men, women, and children at the start of the novel.

That’s not to say that he doesn’t sometimes enjoy the work however.  Not the outcome of it, but puzzling out where his target might have gone, what they did, how they did it.

That’s the problem with doing the devil’s work.  It can be pretty satisfying now and again.  Pretty goddamn satisfying.

The real kicker is that he’s very good at it.  His latest case is more than he bargained for, however, and the signs are there from the beginning in the file that he receives from his handler, which is incomplete, and messier than he’s used to.  As a government tool, he has no choice but to proceed, however.  Many novels like this will start off with a simple, successful case that is used to set the scene before moving on to the more complex plot that forms the main narrative of the novel.  This isn’t the case here, and I liked that the reader is thrown straight into the main story line.  The scene setting occurs as the story develops, but I never felt out of touch with what was happening in this world that is so similar yet markedly different to our own.

I also liked that the four slave states seem rather antiquated in comparison to the rest of the world.  The novel implies that by clinging onto this concept that they have been unable to progress to the same extent as the rest of the world.  This made a lot of sense to me.  I also liked that the America in the novel isn’t quite the superpower that it is in reality, with many countries refusing to trade with a country that allows such barbarity to endure.

Underground Airlines combines a very modern story line with an extremely outdated notion, and it successfully blends the two into a high concept thriller with a pace that doesn’t let up.  I absolutely loved it.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

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