Audiobook Review: Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Alternate History, Mystery
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Audiobook: Hachette Audio; Hardcover: Mulholland Books (July 5, 2016)
Length: 9 hrs and 28 mins; 336 pages
Narrator: William DeMeritt
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.