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Underground Airlines

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A young black man calling himself Victor has struck a bargain with federal law enforcement, working as a bounty hunter for the US Marshall Service in exchange for his freedom. He's got plenty of work. In this version of America, slavery continues in four states called "the Hard Four." On the trail of a runaway known as Jackdaw, Victor arrives in Indianapolis knowing that something isn't right--with the case file, with his work, and with the country itself.
As he works to infiltrate the local cell of a abolitionist movement called the Underground Airlines, tracking Jackdaw through the back rooms of churches, empty parking garages, hotels, and medical offices, Victor believes he's hot on the trail. But his strange, increasingly uncanny pursuit is complicated by a boss who won't reveal the extraordinary stakes of Jackdaw's case, as well as by a heartbreaking young woman and her child--who may be Victor's salvation.
Victor believes himself to be a good man doing bad work, unwilling to give up the freedom he has worked so hard to earn. But in pursuing Jackdaw, Victor discovers secrets at the core of the country's arrangement with the Hard Four, secrets the government will preserve at any cost.
Underground Airlines is a ground-breaking novel, a wickedly imaginative thriller, and a story of an America that is more like our own than we'd like to believe.

336 pages, Paperback

First published July 5, 2016

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About the author

Ben H. Winters

56 books1,893 followers
Ben H. Winters is the author most recently of the novel The Quiet Boy (Mulholland/Little, Brown, 2021). He is also the author of the novel Golden State; the New York Times bestselling Underground Airlines; The Last Policeman and its two sequels; the horror novel Bedbugs; and several works for young readers. His first novel, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, was also a Times bestseller. Ben has won the Edgar Award for mystery writing, the Philip K. Dick award in science fiction, the Sidewise Award for alternate history, and France’s Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire.

Ben also writes for film and television. He is the creator and co-showrunner of Tracker, forthcoming on CBS. Previously he was a producer on the FX show Legion, and on the upcoming Apple TV+ drama Manhunt.

He has contributed short stories to many anthologies, as well as in magazines such as Lightspeed. He is the author of four “Audible Originals”– Stranger, Inside Jobs, Q&A, and Self Help — and several plays and musicals. His reviews appear frequently in the New York Times Book Review. Ben was born in Washington, D.C., grew up in Maryland, educated in St. Louis, and then grew up a bunch more, in various ways, in places like Chicago, New York, Cambridge, MA, and Indianapolis, IN. These days he lives in LA with his wife, three kids, and one large dog.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,377 reviews
Profile Image for Jennifer Masterson.
200 reviews1,136 followers
July 30, 2016
Alright so I'm DNF'ing this and giving it 2.5 rounded up to 3 Stars. I listened to 60% and had a hard time staying with the story. I'm not sure why but it's just not doing it for me. There are too many references to pop culture. I mean Michael Jackson, Norman Rockwell and James Brown? Well James Brown was suppose to have defected to Europe. It's too far fetched for me. This is about slavery still in existence because the Civil War never happened. I wanted it to be something it wasn't.

It started out very interesting and thought provoking and then just lost me. I'm sorry. I wish I could write a better review but I just can't pinpoint why I don't want to stay with this one.

Don't take my word for it. Most people on Goodreads have liked this book. I was listening to the audio and the narration was good. Also Dystopian Fiction is not my genre at all. I was one of the few that didn't like "Station Eleven".
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 6 books3,976 followers
August 22, 2016
Just imagine for a moment an establishment spook and modern slave wrapped into one, pressed into service to hunt down and reel back in other escaped slaves, and you've got yourself a tracker right out of the bad old days of pre-civil war. A black man forced to do the devil's work.

Now imagine him in our modern world, where the American Civil War had ended in an economic truce and slavery is alive and well and made so very efficient.

Hell, just imagine how easy it'd be to track down every slave with GPS and have a world tweeting happy PR banalities to hide the horrible truth of slums in our brightest cities, labor camps like private prisons, communities openly and proudly racist and happy to thumb their noses at the rest of the world at just how they've managed to fool the IRS, twist the legal establishment, and all the while tell themselves just how humane they are to the downtrodden.

Wait... is this an alternate timeline? An excellent What-If novel? A deeply horrific and oppressive dystopia so very much like the world we've got now?

Yes. Fancy that.

But the point is, we're living it through the devil's eyes, the scared black man in this nightmare world who is forced to do unspeakable things to men and women who should be his brothers, and if you think this is a heavy-handed political tale, then think again. I got sucked right in just fine and loved the story, it's twists and turns. Do you think he finds a way to help his brothers and sisters, and get out of his horrid servitude? Does he infiltrate the Underground Railroad (ahem, sorry, Airline) or does he betray or get betrayed?

Just how complex does this tale get?

Pretty complex. And Very Satisfying. :)

It actually makes me believe that for all the crap we're living through in *this* world, I'm still happy to be *here*.
Profile Image for Richard.
984 reviews360 followers
June 30, 2016
Armed with a tempting and provocatively high concept plot, this new novel shot it's way to the top of my reading list for the year. This is a mystery novel that begs to be read, about an alternate present-day where the Civil War never happened, and slavery still exists in four Southern states, and about a freed black agent for the Federal Marshalls that infiltrates abolitionist cells to track down runaway slaves. I felt obligated to read it, to at least see where the concept goes from there. But it seems that this is what the author is banking on as well, because that great concept is really all there is. Beyond the cool premise is a book that moves like a stumbling drunk, awkward and tripping over itself.

The writing is clunky and the main character wooden,trying hard to be compelling but never really getting there. Winters also tries to put his cool idea to use, by dropping a few world-building alternate history nuggets throughout the story (like James Brown being a runaway slave that finds shelter in Europe and becomes a superstar there), but they ultimately feel inelegant and unearned due to the fact that the heart of the story never really engages. In fact, the whole novel feels like an early rough draft, with ideas and story points that never truly click. I give this a low score because if you take away the fancy premise, what are we really left with in this book?
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews28 followers
July 30, 2017
Library ebook- overdrive:
The beginning grabbed me right away. The narrator...( didn't know his name for awhile, but it's Victor) - was sitting in a cafe diner with a younger man: a priest, 'Father Barton'. The dialogue between these two men is sly-covert-conniving - and gut wrenching sad. Victor was once a slave. The Priest: we wanted to punch him in the guts.
So... the narrator: Victor - a Chamaeleon of sorts, with different disguise wigs, names, identities...is a contractor/ bounty hunter, for the United States Marshall Service.
In four southern states SLAVERY IS THE LAW.... ( this is a science fiction 'light'-or time travel 'light' -or twist on the timing of historical events?/!...it's hard to categorize the genre in one tight package....
Its a thrilling ride & UNIQUE.... and surprisingly intimate at the same time.
This story allows us - the reader - to imagine - how *We* WILL ABOLISHED SLAVERY.... in a modern world. Gets us thinking!!
It reminded me a 'little' of the book "11/23/63", by Stephen King. Both books have us look at 'what-if-history- went-another-way: and it could have! Also - there is a love- interest story in here - as in Stephen King's book. ( this one is with a white girl and black man... so it brings up racial issues on purpose).
Victor has a job to do: find a man name Jackdaw, a runaway slave,... but it's mysterious because Victor is a black man- who was once a slave himself but is now working for the government helping track down slaves and bring them in. Why? When he himself was brutally beaten.
Yikes .. I said I wasn't writing reviews: I've retired!! And this book is complex.

Thrilling- very suspenseful - a twisty brain teaser - thought provoking -ultra intriguing and original.
The main character- Victor- is a standout memorable guy!!!

I enjoyed it!!! 4.5 stars!!!
Profile Image for Kemper.
1,390 reviews6,828 followers
September 8, 2016
Talk about a depressing idea for an alternate-history book. This one explores the concept of what would have happened if the United States had never abolished slavery, and it remains an institution in the present day. *sigh* Well, at least Hitler didn’t win the war this time…

Victor is a former slave who managed to escape to the north, but he was eventually caught by the government and forced to work undercover to help catch more poor souls who are trying to use the fabled Underground Airline to escape America. His latest case has brought him to Indianapolis where Victor finds inconsistencies about his latest target while he tries to avoid being drawn into the troubles of a white woman he meets at his hotel.

Just as he did in his Last Policeman trilogy Ben Winters has conceived of a society that is fascinating to read about, but you wouldn’t want to visit there. There’s a terrifying plausibility to the idea that a compromise struck to avoid the Civil War could have resulted in the continued existence of slavery into modern times, and that it would have been industrialized and modernized in the spirit of American capitalism. It’s the details that Winters conjures up that really sell it like the idea that while the north is free that racial equality is still at about a 1960s level rather than the 21st century, or that anti-slavery people try to buy goods certified as not being made by slave labor.

The book fails a bit in regards to its main character, and I’m not sure why. Victor is a pretty fascinating figure as a man forced to betray his own rather than go back into bondage, and while he’s conflicted about that he’s also damnably good at his job. However, by telling us the story only through the first person narrator it feels like it limits the scope of a story that should be wide and epic.

There was a similar problem with The Last Policeman where my uncertainty about the motivations of the main character there threatened to trip up a top notch end-of-the-world scenario. However, I warmed up to Hank Palace in the second book, and it felt like Winters kept making the story more intimate and personal as it progressed. Here, it’s the reverse with Victor being drawn into larger events, but while I found the setting compelling I kept wishing we’d get a broader and bigger perspective than he could provide.

I’m being a tad unfair in that my main dissatisfaction comes from wishing the book was something that it wasn’t. Winters has written a very interesting alt-history with a pretty compelling lead character, but I’m left wondering about all the ideas that the book couldn’t get into just because it limited itself to his story.
Profile Image for Matthew.
1,219 reviews8,839 followers
September 8, 2020
It has been years since I have seen the movie Blade Runner, but as I was reading this I kept saying to myself, for some reason this reminds me of Blade Runner. Then, I started describing the book to a co-worker (and I didn’t tell him about what it reminded me of) and the first thing he said is “Sounds like Blade Runner”. So, I guess I was not too far off! (I did recently read the book that Blade Runner is based on, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? so maybe that contributed to it).

Another thing about this book is that it was very meta for me (is at the word all the young whipper-snappers are using these days?) The book takes place mostly in Indianapolis, which is where I live. I am familiar with all the locations discussed and, at one point he specifically mentions “the corner of Southport and Emerson” right as I was driving by that very corner! (insert Twilight Zone music here!)

It looks like the reviews on this book are very mixed, but I enjoyed it. I thought the story line was creative and the alternate history the author created was dark, brutal, and very interesting. For me, when it comes to writing interesting alternate history, it is best when the alteration is to something major and serious; the results definitely hit harder when this is the case.

In reading some of the criticisms of this book, the major one is that the author is white writing about an issue affecting black people from a black viewpoint. As a white man myself, I probably risk controversy on my own part by commenting on this, but hope my view comes across as straightforward and non-biased. I think that he did a respectful job with the story. If there are people who don’t think this is the case, I completely understand and I am not trying to convince you otherwise! The author did site classic black sci-fi author Octavia E. Butler (specifically her novel Kindred) for inspiration.

In closing, I hope I have not offended anyone with my review and thoughts on this book and approached this with an open mind. It was an interesting and thought provoking novel that I think is worth checking out if you like alternative history or have an interest in Civil Rights based stories.
Profile Image for Mogsy (MMOGC).
2,034 reviews2,605 followers
July 15, 2016
4 of 5 stars at The BiblioSanctum https://bibliosanctum.com/2016/07/11/...

I became a fan of Ben H. Winters back in 2012 when I first picked up his novel The Last Policeman. Since then, I’ve been following his work, subsequently reading Countdown City as well as World of Trouble as they were released. Together, those three books make up what I think is one of the most tragically underrated series I’ve ever read. So of course when I heard about Underground Airlines, I just knew I had to read it.

And wow, what an incredible book this was. If you haven’t read Winters yet, Underground Airlines is why you really need to. It’s very different from the past stuff I’ve read by him, but the writing and the storytelling both help cement in my mind that this author is entirely deserving of more attention.

His hard-hitting new book imagines what the world would look like today, if the Civil War never happened. In this alternate reality, slavery became protected in the Constitution and still exists in America in the “Hard Four” states, but even the northern parts of the country are deeply steeped in racism.

The story’s protagonist is a young black man called Victor, but that is merely one of his identities. A former slave who escaped only to be captured again, Victor was forced to make a deal with the federal government and to work as a kind of bounty hunter for the US Marshals. His handlers would set him on the trail of other runaway slaves, and then order him to track them down and bring them back to their masters. It’s a job that requires taking on a lot of aliases and putting on lots of different faces, but Victor is very good at playing whatever role is required of him. And whenever the work bothers him, he simply convinces himself that he’s just a man doing what he needs to do to survive, and that this is the price of his freedom.

But then Victor gets a new assignment to locate a runaway slave known as Jackdaw. It’s a particularly troublesome case, and from the very beginning Victor gets the sense that everything feels off. For one thing, he suspects that his boss is hiding information from him, and he doesn’t know why. As he traces the clues to find Jackdaw, he also uncovers disturbing secrets related to the Hard Four and their relationships with the government. Amidst all the pieces of this puzzle, an abolitionist movement called the Underground Airlines might be the key to solving the mystery, but Victor will need to figure out how to infiltrate them first.

The world of Underground Airlines will shake you to your core. You read about the horrific conditions in the Hard Four and the racist attitudes that are so imbedded in the culture, and sometimes it’s difficult to reconcile that with the modern setting of smartphones, laptops and GPS. At the same time though, perhaps our reality has more in common with this one than we’d like to believe. The issues in the novel may be magnified, but sadly they still exist in our world today.

Like many books in its genre, this one also made me ponder a lot about history. Namely, how fragile it is, in the sense how close events can come to turning out very differently. One change, one death, one missed opportunity, and everything can fall another way. Winters set out to explore this idea from top to bottom, working around the central premise: What if the Civil War never occurred? The America in his book is very different of course, but so is the entire world. No country exists in a vacuum, and America’s altered history not only influences its own politics, but it makes international governments perceive Americans differently as well. Within America, the culture is transformed, divided, and ailing badly; even though there are individuals, groups, government organizations, corporations, etc. standing in apparent solidarity against the evils of slavery, institutional racism is still alive and well.

Victor is an enlightening figure as well, a complicated protagonist to lead us through this story. It is clear that he recognizes the truth from the start: that he is free but not free, not a slave but still chained to the machine that keeps states like the Hard Four running. As hard as he tries to let go of his past, it comes back to haunt him every time he goes on a new assignment. A part of him hates what he does and what he has become, but denial is a powerful thing, burying the guilt most days. Little by little though, the cracks form in his armor, and he begins to question who he really is under all those different identities. He’s had to put on an act for so long, the past that he has tried so hard to escape will ultimately be the thing which helps Victor find his way back.

At the heart of it, Underground Airlines is a mystery and suspense novel, but it is still nonetheless oh so powerful. Ben H. Winters continues to impress me, going above and beyond all my expectations.

Audiobook Comments: I was also fortunate enough to review an audio copy of this book. I simply cannot praise the narration enough. William DeMeritt is a completely new narrator to me, but his performance immediately won me over. The main character Victor in the novel, who describes himself as a con man, has to juggle many identities and has to leap in and out of different roles depending on the situation. DeMeritt performs these parts wonderfully, lending authenticity to all of Victor’s various personas especially when he does the different accents and inflections in the dialogue. His narration made this story great, and I highly recommend this book in both print and audio.
Profile Image for Tatiana.
1,401 reviews11.7k followers
October 25, 2016
I had been rather resistant to the idea of reading Underground Airlines. First, because of the author (did I really want to read a novel about slavery written by a white author of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters from a POV of a black person?). Second, because it was hard for me to imagine a present day America where slavery could still exist (you know, some speculative premises are just too out there sometimes). But Slate writers kept talking about it, so I decided to give Ben H. Winters a chance.

And what I think about Underground Airlines is that it is a successful alt-history thriller. Not quite Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, but something along the lines of Paolo Bacigalupi's works. It is successful because Winters managed not to bite off more than he could chew. He penned a good thriller with a decent amount of depth without misappropriating black experiences (I think). Winters imagined alt-history became believable to me in a way I didn’t expect it to be. I had thought that certainly slavery couldn't be supported for so much longer due to its basic immorality. And maybe if I had read this novel at a different time I would be pushing back harder against Winters’ portrayal of how American people could logically justify going on with slavery. But this year, with a certain presidential candidate spewing racist garbage left and right, with the support of millions, Winters premise didn’t sound quite that far-fetched. He managed to draw on the present-day, real events and cultural and political trends to envision an alt-world quite convincing in its racism and inhumanity. Interestingly enough, it’s the economical plausibility of hanging onto and continuing slavery didn't quite work for me.

A respectable intellectual exercise.
Profile Image for Althea Ann.
2,232 reviews1,016 followers
August 13, 2016
I really enjoyed Winters' 'Last Policeman' trilogy, so when I heard about his newest book; I picked it up right away, even knowing nothing about it. After reading - I think Winters has surpassed himself. This book is even better.

As the book's blurbs lets us know, this is an alternate history, set in a present-day United States where the Civil War never happened. In this reality, there are still "Slave" and "Free" states, and of course, there are still runaways - and fugitive slave catchers. Unsurprisingly, there are also still abolitionists, and secret networks devoted to helping escapees make it to freedom. With an update in transportation technology, these networks are now referred to as 'Underground Airlines,' rather than railroads.

This is one of those books where I think it's best to go into it not knowing too much about it, and to let the author reveal things at his own pace. Honestly, I think that even the publisher's description of the book gives away too much. It's enough to know that the story involves a fugitive slave catcher working for the FBI, and one particular case that he's assigned to, which seems to have been given very special weight and significance by his 'handler.'

As the case unfolds, not only do we discover a tense and thrilling mystery, but get to know a believably complex character, caught in an untenable situation. The society imagined here, with all its ramifications, is disturbingly logical in its parallels to our own. As the bare bones of the premise suggest, the book handles all the worst issues of inequality and racism in our country, and does it remarkably well, with real depth and sensitivity.

Highly recommended.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Mulholland Books for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.
Profile Image for Blaine.
749 reviews613 followers
October 24, 2020
Sometimes it's possible, just barely possible, to imagine a version of this world different from the existing one, a world in which there is true justice, heroic honesty, a clear perception possessed by each individual about how to treat all the others. Sometimes I swear I could see it, glittering in the pavement, glowing between the words in a stranger's sentence, a green, impossible vision--the world as it was meant to be, like a mist around the world as it is.

Wow. Everything about this book worked for me. The author did a great job of imagining and presenting a historical background for how the Civil War might have been avoided and slavery preserved as legal in the South. As a result, the book explores how America would look today if slavery were still legal in portions of the South. Sprinkled throughout the story are references to actual historical events or people—from the Vietnam War to MLK and Michael Jackson—but each has changed in some way as a result of the ongoing presence of slavery in America.

This thought experiment is not presented dryly. It’s cleverly delivered piecemeal through the story of Victor, a man of many secrets who works in the North with the US Marshals in capturing and returning runaway slaves. Victor is a great narrator, even if not entirely reliable. Victor is pursuing an escaped slave named Jack Daw, but he slowly realizes (as tends to happen in books of this sort) that all is not what it seems.

To say more would be to spoil one of the best books I’ve read in some time. It’s not a feel good story. Indeed, the book’s portrayal of how African-Americans are treated even in this alternate North sheds a harsh light on just how poorly they are actually treated in real life. I’m sure that’s no accident, but the tone of the book is not preachy. It’s a suspense thriller, just one with moral weight. A great idea, wonderfully executed. Highly recommended, especially the audiobook version, which was unusually well-performed.
Profile Image for Erin .
1,233 reviews1,143 followers
February 13, 2017
Underground Airlines was a good concept but I thought the execution was off. It tells of a world in which the civil war never happened and slavery still exists in several southern states. It should have been a slam dunk but I just never really felt engrossed in the story and I think that might be because the author is white. I'm not saying white authors can't or shouldn't write characters of color but I think its harder for a white person to understand and accurately write about the black experience and in a book about slavery that's doublely hard. I would still recommend this book to other readers because its a interesting topic but I think its more of a library book and not one to buy.

Popsugar Reading Challenge: Book about a Difficult Topic
Profile Image for Jessica J..
1,020 reviews1,962 followers
August 12, 2016
I know that there’s been some is it his story to tell? conversation about whether or not a white author should be writing about the plight of a black character—and that conversation has its merit. But I’m giving this 4.5 stars because the construction of this story was just so good that I could not stop reading it. I took it with me on a flight to Denver for work. After five hours of travel, and a couple hours in the hotel bar waiting for my coworkers to be ready for dinner, I was very nearly done.

This noir-ish story is a thoughtfully imagined alternate history in which the Civil War never took place and slavery still exists—albeit in a modern form—throughout a handful of Southern states. Victor, our pseudonymous narrator, is a black bounty hunter chasing down runaways for the US Marshall Service in exchange for his freedom. He’s sent to Indiana to track down a slave named Jackdaw, but something feels off about the case. Haunted by memories of his own time in slavery, Victor digs deeper into the situation and eventually begins to question the long-held belief that he is a good person doing a bad job.

One of the main reasons I don’t do a lot of sci-fi is because I’m not interested in world-building. But one of the reasons why I liked this is because the world-building is kept to a minimum. It’s not as important a factor in speculative fiction, but Winters sprinkles his narrative with references to imagined historical events (a war with Texas) and describes how black pop culture icons such as James Brown were shaped by this alternate reality. It’s believable, and I never found myself thinking about how any of it didn’t make sense.

The scary thing is just how much of Winters’s insights can be applied to modern America, even without the slavery.

Anyway, this is written in the vein of a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett book. It feels an awful lot like a really excellent private eye story, but Winters didn’t do the thing that sometimes bothers me with true noir stories in which the audience doesn’t get to follow the protagonist’s train of thought—they just figure things out and we have to trust that it made sense for them to figure it out. Winters takes us into Victor’s head to reveal a wonderfully complex character. Victor is a troubled dude, but capable of self-reflection and that’s a refreshing thing to see in a novel. I found myself rooting for Victor, but I wasn’t entirely sure what I was rooting for him to accomplish.

This is suspenseful, dark, and gritty. It seems like a lot of my friends had lukewarm reactions to it, which surprises me a little bit. It was so different from what I’ve been reading lately, and I found it thoroughly engaging. Maybe I’ll have to go back and check out the rest of Winters’s backlist.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,050 followers
July 30, 2016
I don't usually read alternate history but when I saw this book from an author I had previously enjoyed, I decided to give it a try. It is present day America, minus one Civil War. Gradually the majority of the southern states have gotten rid of slavery, but four holdouts still use slaves. The central story is Victor, a bounty hunter on the trail of Jackdaw that takes him to Indianapolis. He has long worked for the US Marshall Service, but he also grew up on a plantation as a child.

I think most readers will enjoy this for the small changes in history that have had a big impact on the present day, portrayed right next to the world we know as far as technological advance, etc. (The underground freedom movement in this world is known as Underground Airlines, which I thought was a fun use of this approach.) To me, the novel was uncanny. It is all set in an alternate Indianapolis. I lived there for a year, in a neighborhood on the southeast perimeter where I was the racial minority. There were plenty of times when I was the only white person on the bus, and sometimes people would crack jokes about it. Winters sets the freed slave community in this area, and much of the action occurs between this spot and Meridian and Keystone, the two central north-south roads in the city. Small details that had changed (like the Lincoln the Martyr statue at Monument Circle, which in our reality has a giant monument to those killed in the Civil War) to small details remaining the same (Circle Centre Mall!) The only thing missing to make it my Indianapolis was a threatening tornado.

I was so unnerved that I actually sent a Tweet to the author asking if he had lived in Indy, and he responded to say he had for several years. Well it really shows.

It's a departure from Winters' previous post-apocalypse/collapse police procedural novels (beginning with The Last Policeman,) but there is still a central guy on a case, so there is some familiarity in the tone.

Thanks to the publisher, who supplied me with an eARC through NetGalley.
Profile Image for Kayla.
20 reviews3 followers
February 15, 2016
I received a copy of this ARC from the bookstore I am employed at.

Jesus H.

Meet Victor. At least, that’s what he tells us his name his. It could be Jim Dirkson. It could be something else; he’s got a lot of aliases. Victor is a cunning black man working for a powerful government agency that hunts down runaway slaves and returns them to their masters. The year is 2012 (I think…I’m still a little gray on that detail), and the Hard Four—four states in which slavery still exists—continue to build a regime on the backs of beaten, hopeless humans.

How can that be possible? The Civil War never happened.

In this profound alternate history, Victor is stalking a runaway slave called Jackdaw. Throughout the novel, Victor is continuously haunted by flashbacks of his previous life as a slave. The memories are so real, so violent, that they leave Victor tense and shaking, clenching muscles as he desperately tries to keep his mind in the present. The past is done—this is now. He’s free.

Or is he?

Winters is brilliant as he choreographs Victor’s tale from Indiana down to the Hard Four and back, chasing a man that may or may not be his ticket to freedom. Our author throws in elements of pop culture and conventional history—James Brown, Michael Jackson, Jesse Robinson, Lincoln, others—to convey how different life would be were slavery a legal, modern practice. Without using confusing jargon, he is able to seamlessly bring attention to ideologies like white privilege—“One thing I was used to seeing from young white people, it was confidence, this easy sense that the world belonged to them.”—microagressions, and systematic racism—“Lord knows; people stuck there by poverty, by prejudice, by laws that keep them from moving or working.” It’s rather brilliant.

And Victor, oh Victor. A very complex man. He realizes early on in the novel that he is still enslaved—he may not be a traditional slave, but he is still an instrument of white supremacy, living a life that supports the idea of racial superiority. His visions of the past plague him, and his need to immerse himself in new identities, identities that aren’t his own, begins to crack his persona. Who is he? What is he reaching for? He speaks of his different aliases like they are separate, physical identities, real people he knows and might converse with. His guilt hammers at him throughout the whole novel, and while the flashbacks are sometimes tedious to read (because of their abundance) they are a constant reminder: Winters won’t let you forget the internal battle Victor is running from; a battle that is killing him spiritually.

This is not a novel for those who avoid the truth of modern racism. This is not a novel for those who turn their eyes away from the knowledge that they—we—are often followers of human ignorance. This novel is a stark reminder of what goes on within the "free and equal" borders of our country. It is eerie in its resemblance to the way people of color—not just black people—are treated today. Right now. It is a reminder of the hegemony that exists above our heads.

But I also choose to see the hope in Victor’s story. He is conflicted. The characters around him are conflicted. And many of them hope to right the wrongs that exist in a world that mirrors our own in many ways. I loved this novel, damn it. I want to bathe in the truth of its pages, toss them into the shocked, simple minds of those who dare deny it. Five brilliantly shining stars.

“To just leave him…a man like this.”
“A man like this?” I said softly. “What’re you? What’re you?”
431 reviews22 followers
June 2, 2023
This is a great book about slavery in America and one man's experience with it and becoming a free man. Also it discusses what freedom means to this x slave and how he was never made free the shacles and chains were just gone. He still had to put up with the prejudices of the white man. I highly recommend this book to all.
Profile Image for ij.
212 reviews171 followers
January 10, 2017
Underground Airlines

By Ben H Winters

I found “Underground Airlines” to be an interesting novel that drifts between speculative fiction and noir. Victor the protagonist is a contractor for the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS).

The story is an alternative historical where slavery was not completely abolished, but still exists in the “Hard States” (Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Carolina). The story is broken into three (3) parts.

Part 1 (North), about 2/3rds of the book.

Victor is in Indianapolis to track down an escaped slave, named Jackdraw, under his contract with USMS. Victor himself is an escaped slave. Victor is using the name Jim Dirkson to infiltrate into the underground airlines. The underground airlines is a modern type of underground railroad with similar goals and jobs.

Jim meets with several members of the underground airlines in order to find Jackdraw. Jim also meets Martha, a white women, who becomes a major player in the story. Jim reports to Deputy Marshal Bridges in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Wow, I can walk to Gaithersburg in fifteen (15) minutes.

Without adding too many spoilers Jim finds Jackdraw. This begins another part of the story and Jim’s mission is expanded.

Part 2 (South)

Jim and Martha head south, to Alabama, to find a package that Jackdraw left behind. They have to trace back through Jackdraw’s escape route in order to find the package. Jim takes the part of Martha’s slave worker to enter the facility of GGSI a corporation that uses slaves in their operation. With some difficult Jim tracks down the package, but Jim gets caught in the process.

Part 3 (North), all of twenty-three (23) pages.

I really can’t explain how they got back to Indianapolis, but they did. Jim seems to have been working for both the USMS and the underground airlines. The rest of the story has to be accomplished in twenty-three (23) pages. I will let you decide if it makes sense.

The story ebbed and flowed, but, I made it through. I enjoyed this book and rounded up my 3.5 rating to four (4). Based on the ending, we can expect to read about more escapades of Jim and Martha in another book.
Profile Image for Lata.
3,609 reviews192 followers
October 15, 2016
An interesting, vomit-inducing thought experiment of what the US could be if there had never been a civil war and slavery had been enshrined in the Constitution for some states. Sickening idea, though sad thing is, having extremely cheap labour is not a crazy idea: look at all the cheap items we can buy, made by people making a poor wage, versus items made for a fair wage. And mistreating workers -- workers' rights is still a very recent thing in human history. And, finally, designating a group of people as not human and treating them accordingly, well, that's never gone out of style.

The book itself--I had to read this slowly. There are no good guys here (except for one cute kid: "Controversy!") Everyone has shades and layers of motives, and how exhausting it must be to always be in fear. But then, that and greed are the bases for the society in which the protagonist and those he interacts with function. The protagonist's view of the impossibility of things improving or changing for the better, expressed about midway through the book, is profoundly bleak, which much of this book is. The protagonist is not a good man, and functions from an ethically compromised and difficult position. And yet, I kept reading, fully knowing why the main character did what he did. And there is no happy ending, just people doing things for their own ethically compromised reasons, but I did feel a little change in the protagonist's outlook by the end of this book.
Profile Image for MadProfessah.
367 reviews163 followers
May 9, 2020
Ever since I read Ben Winters' pre-apocalyptic mystery-thriller The Last Policeman trilogy (The Last Policeman, Countdown City and World of Trouble) I have been something of a fanboy for this speculative fiction author. When I learned that his first published book after The Last Policeman was going to be called Underground Airlines, set in an alternate history of an America where slavery persists to the 21st century and a modern analogue to the Civil War era Underground Railroad exists I was VERY psyched.

Underground Airlines is out and has an incredibly compelling premise. The alternate history is based around a seminal event: the assassination of President-elect Abraham Lincoln in 1861 and the subsequent "grand compromise" which defused the tension between the states (that in our timeline led to the Civil War) by ratifying five constitutional amendments which have the effect of maintaining slavery. They allow every state in the Union to determine its slaveholding status, and include an amendment cementing racial apartheid in place by preventing the enactment of any future amendment that would alter the 5 Grand Compromise amendments.

Most historical events that occurred in our timeline (9/11, Michael Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt) also occurred in the timeline of Underground Airlines but there are some fascinating (and horrifying) ways that the absence of the Civil War from our past has warped the present alternate time-line depicted in the book.

Interestingly, it's not the entire South which has slavery (or the preferred term "Person Bound to Labor") in the modern era. There are the Hard Four: Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Carolina (North and South are reunited).

Underground Airlines not only has an amazing premise but also a VERY complicated protagonist. He is a former slave named Victor who is now working (via coercion) for the U.S. Marshal's Service as an undercover agent to locate escaped slaves and return them to involuntary servitude. Clearly Victor is a very problematic character (and in my mind, not very sympathetic). [This may be a feature of main characters in Ben Winters novels--the titular cop in The Last Policeman is definitely not a heroic figure.] His circumstances are very complicated, and through the machinations of the plot, Victor becomes a double agent and perhaps a triple agent as he gets sucked into a particular case that involves a "mcguffin" which could potentially have a devastating impact on the rotten institution of slavery.

Despite my misgivings and issues with the main character, the setting of Underground Airlines provides author Ben Winters with multiple opportunities to include mordant, thought-provoking commentary about race and class and history in our society and raises this book above the multitude of other sources of entertainment which fight for our attention in this media-saturated era.

Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Faith.
1,849 reviews520 followers
January 29, 2021
Jim, a 40 year old black man who has escaped from slavery, is tearfully trying to convince a priest, Father Barton, to help him free his wife. But his name isn't Jim (he goes by Victor, but that isn't his name either), he doesn't have a wife and its the present day, not the 1800s. In this terrific alternative history thriller there was no Civil War and Lincoln did not free the slaves. Slavery is still legal in four southern states. Victor works in the north as an agent of the U.S. Marshals Service tracking down escaped slaves, and he is now in Indianapolis hunting for the slave Jackdaw. Victor knows that the priest is part of a network of abolitionists known as the Underground Airline and he suspects that they are hiding Jackdaw.

This was a very imaginative and surprising plot. Motives are never straight forward. The Marshals become increasingly desperate to recover Jackdaw, and Barton is just as desperate to keep him away from them. Victor is caught in the middle between these two sides and each is willing to both bribe and threaten Victor to get his help. The book was particularly exciting when Victor had to head to one of the slave states to recover some information. He is required to have a white escort. Victor is a very complicated character, filled with anger and with an interesting backstory that is revealed gradually over the course of the book. He is a good person but very skilled at deception. He managed to free himself from slavery but not from racism and his work for the Marshals is not entirely voluntary.

The pace of this book was very fast. I had not intended to finish it in a day but I didn't want to stop listening to it. The ending was not all together satisfying, but I liked it. The audiobook was read by William DeMeritt, who has a voice that is extremely pleasant to listen to.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher but I wound up listening to the audiobook borrowed from the library.
Profile Image for Britany.
967 reviews417 followers
June 11, 2017
3.5 Stars
What would the world look like if the civil war never took place and slavery was still a thing?

I tend to really enjoy alternate reality books especially given the historical references and timeline. Our narrator (who touts multiple names) is living in the North, doing a job he loathes, but it pays the bills. We slowly figure out what it is "Victor" is hunting and it left me with a sick feeling in my gut. Along the way, we meet a myriad of characters including a white Martha and her mixed son- Lionel (who I adored). Victor finds himself crossed between two lines and figuring out which side he's playing on. He is tasked with an impossible mission to go into the deep South to find a needle in a haystack- a single envelope that has information that could change the country as they know it if released.

The writing was a bit clunky and I found the narrative jumbled around to try to find its footing. I appreciated the author's take on this alternate world, but for me it faltered quite a bit. There were moments that dragged with the political speak, but I didn't feel that the author did a great job presenting this world. I still have so many questions!! On the other hand, there were so many moments that I couldn't turn the pages fast enough to find out what would become of our narrator on this path to complete an impossible task. I think this was too big a bite to pull off for this author, but I enjoyed the taste.

Profile Image for Sarah.
732 reviews73 followers
September 25, 2019
It's a rare book that fascinates me enough to read it twice in one week but this is one of those books. It was both interesting and gave me a lot to think about.

This book is set in an alternate version of the U.S. where Lincoln was assassinated and the Civil War didn't happen. Because of this slavery still exists in the "Hard Four" states. Victor, or whatever name he happens to be going by, is a U.S. Marshall whose job it is to track down escaped slaves. At the beginning of this book we have Victor tracking down a fugitive known as Jackdaw. Being black, or moderate charcoal with brass tones #41, Victor is able to pose as a man who is trying to get someone he cares about out of slavery in the Hard Four via the Underground Airlines, which actually doesn't use airlines, but it's a cool phrase. Once he gains the trust of the people involved he's able to find the slave.

Victor quickly realizes that all is not what it seems regarding Jackdaw and this triggers a first rate suspense novel with an MC who has to navigate the waters of racism and slavery in both the north and the south. Just living in a northern state isn't enough to get him away from some awful racism. And oh boy do I have an example.

There's this godawful and totally appalling 172 varietals pigmentation taxonomy to classify skin color of anyone who is black. Sure, they're black, but they're also late summer honey with warm tones #76, wild honey with black tones, midnight purple hue #121, moderate pine red tone #211. As I mentioned above our MC is moderate charcoal with brass tones #41. This is so dehumanizing that I actually couldn't believe it. I thought reducing someone to black or white is frustrating enough but by treating someone as a very specific skin tone they reduce them to only that skin tone and not a human being. I was absolutely appalled by this system but it really suited the book.

This was a brilliant book, the kind that makes me want to read everything the guy has written, including The Last Policeman, which Carol. told me to read years ago. I'm having to hold myself back from buying the entire (matching) trilogy.

I listened to the audio, which is an experience I definitely recommend. The narrator did a great job of reading the book and bringing the MC to life.
Profile Image for Lynn.
24 reviews18 followers
July 16, 2016
Underground Airlines may work as an allegory about our society’s troubled relationship with race, our issues with corrupt and/or gridlocked government, and, of course, our tendency to bow down to our corporate overlords – but, as a story? I never quite bought it.

This novel has a high concept premise: what if the Civil War had never happened? What would America look like today? That’s a fascinating question. It’s what made me pick up the book. But – aside from slavery still existing in four states in chilling, dystopian fashion – really the only difference I picked up on was that our main character has to rely on listening to a mix tape while he’s driving around because CD players haven’t been introduced to the American market yet.

Really? We have cell phones, laptops, and GPS systems, but we never got around to the CD player? Or, apparently, streaming music services? That’s not how technology works! That’s not how history works either. I cannot believe that an event that looms as large in American history as the Civil War could cease to exist and we would wind up in a present where Michael Jackson was not only born and became a singer and became famous – he also recorded the exact same songs! Has this author never heard of the butterfly effect?

There is even a mention of Day-After-Thanksgiving sales! (Wasn’t a nationwide celebration of Thanksgiving kind-of Abraham Lincoln’s idea? You know, during the Civil War?)

Anyway, I feel bad for being so picky, but it’s the little details that make stories believable, and I couldn’t buy into the world this book tried to create. It felt more like what America would be like if slavery had somehow been reinstated a century or so after it was abolished. The corporate “plantation” our characters visit seems more like a Chinese factory town than something that might have grown out of the original Southern economy.

Still, I might have given 3 stars for the attempt, but the ending felt very rushed and incomplete – almost as if it was setting itself up for a sequel (which I suppose it probably was).
Profile Image for Amanda Mae.
337 reviews20 followers
April 9, 2016
If you've seen the mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, you're already a little primed for this novel. This dystopian America where slavery still exists in some states is chilling in not only its accuracy to how slavery in this country was in the past, but also the repercussions and ramifications we face in both our reality and that of the book. They aren't called slaves, but People Bound to Labor, or PBs, or peebs. Technology has allowed to near total control of these enslaved people, but most of the country's cars come from Pakistan or South Africa (and still have tape decks) because the American economy as a whole isn't so great and other free countries won't deal with us. The rumored Underground Airlines moves escaped slaves up north and to Canada where they can truly be free. If they don't make it to Canada, the U.S. Marshals could track them down and send them back to the South.

This is a chilling book. It's at times a classic spy novel, but set in an alternate reality that heightens the tension even more. And our main character? Complicated to the core. You will be trying to figure him out through to the bitter end. I had trouble putting this one down. Exceptional read!
Profile Image for Amanda.
1,087 reviews222 followers
March 20, 2017
I listened to this almost all in one go on the way home from my parents yesterday. I think this book got overshadowed a bit due to being released so close to The Underground Railroad and a similar theme. They are very different and despite all the awards Railroad garnered I think I liked this one better.

Thanks to my good friend Sarah Anne for the recommendation:-)
Profile Image for Ace.
433 reviews23 followers
May 26, 2017
I was not sure what to expect when this came out last year. I waited a long time for it to come to overdrive in my library. Eventually I grabbed it with a credit at audible. I must say first of all that I loved this narrator, he managed several distinct characters male and female. He did an amazing job. I think I read somewhere that this is his first foray into audiobooks.

The story is about an alternate world set in America where slavery was not abolished in the whole country. It was strange at first reading about slaves and disposable mobile phones in the same book, but the author pulled this off seamlessly. Many things are the same as today and I was left pondering what- if other things had gone differently in our history and how much better or worse things could be for us today. One of my favourite reads for this year. Surely there must be a sequel. This story could go on and on as far as I'm concerned. Bring it. 5 stars.
Profile Image for Skip.
3,288 reviews395 followers
December 24, 2016
Having been a finalist for Goodreads' Best Science Fiction book of 2016, I am really glad I read this. Very creative alternate fiction. Set in modern day America, the Civil War never happened and slavery remains the law of the land in four Southern states. The black protagonist works as a contractor for the U.S. Marshals, tracking down escaped slaves, despite his own background. His current assignment seems "off", and he finds himself embroiled in a major society changing drama. Meanwhile, despite his usual singular focus, he is inadvertently drawn into the life of single white mother, trying to find the black father of her son. They need each other's help to succeed in their missions. I liked the world building, and expect to read both what I think will be a sequel as well as Winters' Last Policeman series.
Profile Image for ♥ Sandi ❣	.
1,271 reviews9 followers
January 9, 2017
Victor/Jim/Brother is a contracted, owned bounty hunter, a tracker, by any and all names. He is a black man, forced into hunting black men. This is set in the present day. The catch is that our present day is not as we know it to be. The Civil War never took place, and even though slavery was finally abolished, there are still 4 states in the United States, called the Hard Four, that still condone and practice slavery.

This story relates one such case for Victor, tracking a run away slave, and then the twists begin.

The writing moved along very well as it describes our changed but present day. Under this new framework the characters are believable and the plot viable.

A new author for me, but one I hope to continue to read.

3.5 stars for the story and .5 star for the premise of the novel.
Profile Image for Karrie Miner.
49 reviews2 followers
January 30, 2016
I wanted to like this book and I wanted it to create a dialogue about racism. It got some wonderful reviews from independent booksellers, but it just wasn't great. The writing was mediocre and the story was choppy. My favorite parts were the ones that delved into the affects of racism, but it felt exactly like the racism of today. Maybe that is the point, but I doubt it... Kind of disappointing.
Profile Image for Anne Hershewe.
105 reviews2 followers
September 23, 2017
I listened to most of this audiobook during a weekend trip that involved a fair amount of driving. Overall, I enjoyed the story itself but many things nagged at me throughout the book, and it took me several days to process them. Hence, this belated and lengthy (for me) review.

Winters has reimagined the US as a place that never had a civil war and ultimately enshrined slavery in the Constitution. The reader is guided through this world by Victor, a former slave who now works with the US Marshals to track down escaped slaves. When the book begins, Victor is attempting to infiltrate the Underground Airlines, an organization that (as its name suggests) is essentially a modern-day Underground Railroad.

My first issue is that Winters is a white guy. I'm generally a believer that authors should be able to explore the subject-matters that interest them, and be encouraged to write from different and interesting perspectives. Being a white man trying to imagine what is like to be a black man the US is a difficult and somewhat problematic exploration by itself, if only because Winters can never truly understand what it is like to be black in America. But then trying to write from the perspective of a black man in a United States where slavery continues to exist? That subject seems like it would be largely foreign to a man like Winters. To his credit, Winters appears to know that people will have issues with his book because he is a white man writing from a black perspective, and acknowledges that he cannot ever understand what it is like to be black. Even knowing this information, I can't help but think about what differences there might be if a black person wrote this story. It also just kind of felt like a weird appropriation the black experience.

My second issue is about the history. Throughout the book, the reader gets tidbits from Victor about historical figures familiar to any American. Lyndon Johnson, FDR, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesse Owens - they all are featured in the book and quite closely resemble the historical figures we know. Johnson and FDR are presidents. James Brown was a slave, but then escaped to Europe and became an international sensation. Jesse Owens won all those Olympic medals, but then defected to the Soviet Union. MLK is reimagined as an abolitionist and even leads a march on Selma. Michael Jackson even has the same repertoire!

Call me nit-picky and annoying, but I'm willing to bet that the continued existence of slavery would alter the very fabric of our society in such a way that these people would not all play the same (or ANY) role in US history. I'm supposed to believe that Jesse Owens, a man born in one of Winters' slave states (Alabama), would have still made it to Berlin in 1936? Would jazz, the blues, and funk even exist such that they could influence MJ and countless other artists? And, even if they did exist, would we even call them by the same names? What does immigration look like? I can't even talk about the presidents and politics, because the segregationist agendas from the Civil War on - something that would not need to exist in the same way in an America with slavery - were (and are) a very real and influential part of shaping laws, of the industrialization and economic growth of northern cities, and of general American history! All of these things don't really feature largely in the story. And, Winters does have some plausible tidbits: there are no Japanese cars, as Japan and other countries won't do business with the US because of slavery; some non-slave states have enacted laws that prohibit the selling of goods coming from slave states (but presumably goods made by slave labor from abroad are okay?); and some states have updated Jim Crow laws. BUT, these historical throwaway comments were so glaring to me that I couldn't even focus on the story when one would pop up. I would just sit there stewing and saying to myself "there is NO WAY that person would be doing the same thing!!"

In attempt to give Winters the benefit of the doubt, I've mused about whether he used prominent historical figures in order to ground the reader. By showing glimpses of these people, Winters presents a world that is foreign and yet disturbingly familiar to Americans. Slavery informs both the world that Winters created, but also continues to inform the America the reader lives in today. That being said, I still think he should have at least given MJ some different songs!
Profile Image for LaDonna.
174 reviews2,453 followers
January 1, 2018
2.5 stars...I generously rounded it up to 3.

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Consider the fact that I started reading this book in September. It took me almost 4 months to finish it. Why?? Because the book is approximately 125 pages too long. I cannot stand wasting my time on books that do not deliver. Yet, I do not want to add to my will-not-finish shelf so I took my time and pushed through. It was not until this week when I got past the first 125 pages when I realized that there may actually be an interesting story within the pages of Underground Airlines .

The idea of reading a book that depicts an alternative view of US history was something I could not resist. Slavery being alive and well in four states truly peaked my interest, especially since the book is set in the future. The idea that the US Marshal Service in this alternate America has a former slave as one of its "bounty hunters" added to my curiousity. A former slave assisting in the capture and return of other African Americans back into slavery blew my mind! Unfortunately, I found that Ben H. Winters did a poor job in relaying his tale. There was just too much extraneous mumbo jumb to wade through in order to get to the main core of the story. And, even then, I literally said, "Really? This is the best he [Winter] can come up with?"

Look, I really admit that stories set in the future are usually not my favorite reads. Nonetheless, I can appreciate a well-written, well-told story regardless of when and where it happens. Underground Airlines does not check the aforementioned boxes, for me. I think the concept is definitely outside the box. The execution just leaves a lot to be desired.
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