Summary and book reviews of Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

Underground Airlines

by Ben H. Winters

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters X
Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2016, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2017, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Gary Presley

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About this Book

Book Summary

It is the present-day, and the world is as we know it: smartphones, social networking and Happy Meals. Save for one thing: the Civil War never occurred.

A gifted young black man calling himself Victor has struck a bargain with federal law enforcement, working as a bounty hunter for the US Marshall Service. 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.

A mystery to himself, Victor suppresses his memories of his childhood on a plantation, and 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 himself may be the biggest obstacle of all - though his true self remains buried, it threatens to surface.

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.

"So," said the young priest. "I think that I'm the man you're looking for."

"Oh, I hope so," I said to him. "Oh, Lord, I do hope you are."

I knitted my fingers together and leaned forward across the table. I was aware of how I looked: I looked pathetic. Eager, nervous, confessional. I could feel my thin, cheap spectacles slipping down my nose. I could feel my needfulness dripping from my brow. I took a breath, but before I could speak, the waitress came over to pour our coffee and hand out the menus, and Father Barton and I went silent, smiled stiff and polite at the girl and at each other.

Then, when she was gone, Father Barton talked before I could.

"Well, I must say, Mr. Dirkson—"

"Go on and call me Jim, Father. Jim's just fine."

"I must say, you gave LuEllen quite a start."

I looked down, embarrassed. LuEllen was the receptionist, church secretary, what have you. White-haired, apple-cheeked lady, ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Ben Winters imagines a different history for the United States in Underground Airlines by changing the time of a single precipitous event: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. In Winters's alternate history there was no Civil War, and Lincoln's assassination in Indianapolis on the way to his inauguration was "the martyrdom that saved the union." His death sparked a political compromise. The United States remained a union, but one with slave states and slavery tolerating states. Fans of alternate history will want this for their libraries. Those new to the genre could find no better book to explore the concept.   (Reviewed by Gary Presley).

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Media Reviews

Booklist

A daring and very well constructed novel.

Kirkus Reviews

Smart and well paced. The story could use a little fine-tuning, but it moves deftly from a terrific premise and builds to a satisfying conclusion.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man meets Blade Runner in this outstanding alternate history thriller... The novel's closing section contains several breathtaking reversals, a genuinely disturbing revelation, and an exhilarating final course of action for Victor.

Library Journal

Starred Review. Explosive, well plotted, and impossible to put down, this alt-hist by the Edgar Award-winning author of the "Last Policeman" trilogy will attract readers of all genres... Fast paced and filled with menace, the story has an ambience that makes it special.

Author Blurb James Patterson
It is a rare thing when a writer has a fresh new provocative idea - and then executes it beautifully. This is what Ben H. Winters has done in his novel Underground Airlines. Imagine an America in which slavery still exists. Now imagine a dramatic telling of the story.

Author Blurb Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians
A top-flight thriller that's as emotionally searing and tragically plausible as anything in contemporary fiction.

Author Blurb Hugh Howey, New York Times-bestselling author of Wool
The most timely of alternate history novels. Ben Winters has created a spellbinding world that forces the reader to look around-and to look within. This is a thriller not to be missed and one that will not be easily forgotten.

Author Blurb Michael Koryta, author of Those Who Wish Me Dead
Underground Airlines is bold, brilliant, and beautiful - everything you could want from a novel, Ben Winters delivers ten-fold. He's a writer to watch, one of exceptional vision and imagination whose characters draw the reader in to the point that an alternate history seems not only plausible, but the only one that counts until the final page.

Author Blurb David Shafer, National Bestselling author of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Underground Airlines is like nothing I have ever read before... You're set down in motion on a tilted mirror and then it's turn after gripping turn - my every next hour depended on which way he went.

Author Blurb Laird Hunt, author of Neverhome
Brilliantly written, terrifyingly conceived, Underground Airlines had me from the first page to the last ... This may be alternate history, but what it has to say about actual, enduring race and racism cuts awfully close to the 21st century American bone.

Author Blurb Stewart O'Nan, author of The Speed Queen
Smart, quick and tricky, Ben Winters knows how to pull off a high-concept thriller. Fans of The Man in the High Castle will love Underground Airlines.

Reader Reviews

Mary G. (Purcellville, VA)

Outstanding!
Underground Airlines by Ben Winters is the best book I have read in a very long time. The book presents an alternative history of the United States. One in which the Civil War never happened. In this America, slavery still exists in four states and ...   Read More

Ann B. (Kernville, CA)

Bold, controversial premise atop scaffolding of by-the-book noir
I was introduced to the first few chapters of this book via the audio version read by William DeMeritt. His voice nailed the tone of this classic noir thriller, which posits that the Civil War never happened and that four southern states continue to ...   Read More

Julie G. (West Hartford, CT)

Underground Airlines
I absolutely loved this book. The writing was spot on, and while I could have read it in one sitting, I kept closing the book because I didn't want it to end. As an alternative history, it is compelling, gripping, and frighteningly plausible. The ...   Read More

Josephine J. (Goshen, CT)

Wonderful alternative history fiction
What if the Civil War never happened? What if the Crittenden Compromise became law? This is the premise of Ben Winters' riveting new novel. In this book, slavery is still legal in four Southern states, and slave catchers are authorized to find ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Underground Railroad

Harriet TubmanThe U.S. government changed the portrait image on the U.S. $20 bill. It used to be President Andrew Jackson and now includes abolitionist Harriet Tubman. By 21st century standards, 19th century military hero and politician Jackson could be classified as a racist and an indirect perpetrator of genocide. By 21st century and 19th century standards, Harriet Tubman was heroic. Born into slavery, abused and mistreated, she later said of herself, "I grew up like a neglected weed - ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it." Escaping from Maryland to Pennsylvania freedom, Tubman became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, who "never lost a passenger." Few there are who better exemplify moral and physical courage.

In his novel ...

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