Review: Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

underground airlinesUnderground Airlines has a unique premise, which can basically be summed up as follows: what if the American Civil War never happened?  The answer to that question, according to Ben H. Winters’ novel, is that slavery would still exist in four southern states, tolerated by the rest of the Union because it’s easy to ignore. The story is told by a “freed” slave now working as a bounty hunter for a shady government agency, tracking down escaped slaves to be returned to their owners. It would, presumably, be called alternate history, apart from the fact that it takes place in the present.

If you’re interested in reading an intriguing and well-paced thriller with a bit of mystery thrown in, Underground Airlines is worth picking up. There are a number of good twists to keep the reader engaged, and the depiction of subterfuge and the protagonist’s increasing lack of comfort with his own actions are well-developed. If you enjoyed Stephen King’s 11.22.63, there’s a really strong chance you’ll like Underground Airlines; it’s very similar in terms of its main character, subplots and propulsive conclusion.

My problem is that I didn’t like 11.22.63, and once I realised how much Underground Airlines shares with it, I couldn’t help but make comparisons. The narrator of Winters’ novel (who I keep calling ‘the narrator’ because his name changes so many times in the story) is, like King’s, not particularly interesting, and the cursory addition of a female character to add obstacles to the solving of the plot in both books was a huge source of irritation to me. I really wanted to like Underground Airlines; I’m a fan of alternate history, but I’m not sure the use of historical concepts works here. For me (and surely everyone), a key part of successful alternate history is that the fictional concept has to be believable and, maybe I’m just very naive, but the continuing existence of slavery in the 21st century just wasn’t convincing. I also found myself pondering what purpose a narrative in which slavery does still exist and the rest of the US and, indeed, the world, are prepared to turn a blind eye. I believe that a really tight, convincing alternate history could highlight continuing racial conflict; I just don’t think that Underground Airlines is that book.

4 thoughts on “Review: Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

  1. Ola says:

    I think that this alternative history is very much believable. Slavery presented as the one in books doesn’t exist, but there are places where work that slaves did in the book is a reality. Think of the textile industry in Asia, where workers, even underaged ones, have to work crazy amount of hours to get salary that will barely let them survive a month. Those people are forced to work in such conditions, they really don’t have much choice. And true, they are free people, but what kind of freedom is that when they don’t have much choice about their lives and works they doing is giving them no money or time to relax, or feel secure. And the rest of the world is turning a blind eye, and is wearing those clothes.


  2. Sarah @ Reviews and Readathons says:

    This is actually the first negative review I’ve seen of this book. From just the summary, I think the concept is believable, both for reasons Ola points out, and because race is still such a problem in the US. However, I can’t definitively state that it works until I’ve read the book, so I really appreciate the ability to read your opinions before I get the book.


    • Katy Goodwin-Bates says:

      For me, the execution of the idea was a problem; the whole slavery concept is in the background and the explanations of how it remains are rushed. Slavery is secondary to the main character, and I didn’t find him interesting enough to make up for the gaps. If it’s meant to be a cautionary tale about race relations, I personally don’t think it works that well. I’d be interested to know what you think if you do read it.

      Liked by 1 person

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