Monday, September 12, 2016

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Hardcover, 336 pages

Published July 2016 by Mulholland Books

I am a sucker for alternate history, most automatically think of the Nazis win classic Man in The High Castle and sure WW II has been ripe for these types of Stories. Harry Turtledove however did a classic novel about the South winning the civil war (Guns of the South) and in a sense this novel is more connected to that classic. The writing is not perfect but over all I find this novel to be a excellent entry in the subgenre.

Set in a modern alternate history Indianapolis, I could tell as a Hoosier native that the author actually knew the city. I think Indiana readers will enjoy that aspect of the novel. The story in set in a America where slavery remains legal in four states called the hard four. The main character is A US Marshall agent - a freed slave named Victor who tracks runaway slaves. He is in the circle city to infiltrate a abolitionist cell.

This world is well realized even if it is a little far fetched, you just kinda have to ride with the idea to enjoy what the author is trying to get across. In 2016 when a national movement exists just to remind many in this country of the basic concept that human rights and black lives matter I think this is a important novel. Speculative fiction at its best is a story not grounded in realism, but one that explores ideas. So to think that four states would still hold on to slavery is hard to follow, but so is a world where Trayvon Martin was shot for wearing a hoodie and his killer walks free.

Victor is a complicated character, but one who carries the novel quite well. I worried during the novel that Winters waited to long to give Victor's motivation for doing such a horrible thing as sending other slaves back to bondage. It makes sense when it is explained and provides to me the most heartbreaking reveal of the novel.

One of the most unbelievable things is Victor's obsession with Michael Jackson. ha-ha.

The side characters and plot-lines carry the novel, but it would not have worked without characters like the Abolitionist priest and the slave owning factory operator being believable. The world building is solid, a author without a foundation in the genre might not get the details right, thankfully they are done in subtle ways. Non-genre authors often write those moments with a hammer.

Underground Airlines is a terrific politically charged novel, it is not a fun world to visit but an important one.

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