Review: Underground Airlines

Underground air UKBy Ben H. Winters

Century, out now

America today with one key difference – slavery is still legal in four states. And who’s the best person to send after a runaway slave?

Ben Winters’ Last Policeman trilogy was one of my favourite series of recent times, as much because the author did not shy away from the ramifications of the premise that he had created, but instead followed things through to their conclusion. The same applies with Underground Airlines, which takes its alternate history idea and runs with it.

As the epigram at the start of the book suggests, things didn’t take the same path in the 1860s as they did in our world, with slavery very much the cornerstone of the four states (Carolina has unified) that use it. The North/South divide has become even more pronounced and there have been knock-on effects elsewhere in history (and literature – the version of To Kill a Mockingbird in this universe is very different, yet tackles some of the same themes). Winters doles out the relevant facts as the reader needs them (usually about two paragraphs after you start thinking “But if that’s the case…”), filling in the backstory for both the world and his central character, Victor, so that by the time we reach the third act, we understand exactly what the stakes are, and why they’re so important to the narrator.

Underground air USAgainst the backdrop of all this world building is a fast-paced tale as Victor – an escaped slave himself who has been tasked as a bounty hunter – pursues another target, only to discover there’s far more going on than he originally realises. Those involved in the Underground Airlines – an upgraded version of the Underground Railroad of our world – have their own agenda, and Victor becomes caught up with both them, and a young white woman and her mixed-race son who face opprobrium even in places where sensibilities should be more like our own world… or at least the version of our world we’d like it to be. There are all too many times you read a scene in this where a black man is treated as property, and realise that it’s far closer to our reality than we’d prefer to believe.

All the characters have shades of grey – those involved as slave-owners as well as those fighting for their freedom – and Victor himself is an unlikely hero, admitting to himself (and the reader) the moral cost of what he’s done to survive. There’s no great world-shattering event at the end to “put things right” – this is the world the characters know and function within, and readers can take any number of parallels away from the story in terms of the ability of a single person or a small group to change the way we live.

There’s scope for a sequel and I hope that Winters does return to this alternate 2016 at some point down the line.

Verdict: An excellent piece of parallel world building mixed with a strong action plot. 9/10

Paul Simpson

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