Review | Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Posted April 30, 2017 by Asheley in review / 0 Comments

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
Review | Underground Airlines by Ben H. WintersUnderground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
Series: Standalone
Published by Mulholland Books on July 5, 2016
Pages: 327
Source: Library
Narrator: William DeMeritt
Length: 9 hours, 28 minutes
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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.

Why I read It:

I’ve had my eye on Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters since I first heard about it, way back before it was published. But thriller/mystery/suspense books aren’t my go-to reads. I had to work myself up to it. I finally checked this one out from the library in both book and audiobook format and HOLY BATMAN, I’m so glad I did. This one went to my favorites shelf.


This book is fantastic. Definitely a new favorite, which is a little sobering for me because of the topic and subject matter. I’ve never read anything exactly like this, though, and I loved that it made me pause and think about what I was reading – think hard – nearly constantly throughout the story.

Underground Airlines is a present-day alternate-history story. It is a thriller with some mystery and suspense.

This story imagines a United States in which President-elect Lincoln was assassinated before he was sworn into office and the Civil War never happened. The Constitution in this story is different than the one we have in real life because the Crittenden Compromise was passed by Congress (thankfully, it never passed in real life-it was tabled in Congress in December 1860). As a result of all of this, there are four states known as “the Hard Four” where owning slaves is okay. It is legal. Slavery is allowed and this is protected by the US Constitution. So in this present-day US with all of our technology and pop culture, there are slaves and there is slave labor.

It is horrifying.

The main character is a runaway slave that has been *cough*hired*cough* by the US government to catch other runaway slaves and bring them back to their respective owners – this is part of the Fugitive Persons Law. Needless to say, there is a really huge ethical conflict for the main character. And as the story unfolds, the conflict becomes more and more complex. This book is one of those cases where I literally didn’t know how everything would play out until the very end. I couldn’t figure it out and I was completely engaged.

Every time I thought I was settled into the story, another twist popped up and it made my heart race. One of the international edition covers for this book reads on the front: “What Price Freedom?” in large letters — I felt that as I read. This book is terrifying because it feels like it could so easily become reality in the world we live in. And yet I couldn’t stop reading. I had to keep going.

Sidenote: I wish this book wasn’t compared to The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (another favorite of mine, so fantastic) so much. The two are completely different; they’re not the same type of book at all. Yes, both have slavery woven deeply into the story, both have runaway slave main characters, both feature a fictionalized system based on the real Underground Railroad. But I think these books stand alone and should be read in that way.

Don’t Miss This:

Author Ben H. Winters has provided a timeline of the events that lead up to Underground Airlines on the publisher’s website. I wish, I wish, I wish I had seen and read this before I read the book! I would have loved to refer to this during my reading because these (fictional) events in history were mentioned here and there throughout the story. Here is a link to the timeline. Seriously, check it out.

Audiobook Notes:

The audiobook format of Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters is 9 hours, 28 minutes, Unabridged. It is published by Hachette Audio. William DeMeritt narrates and he made this book come alive. He made the main character’s every terrified breath, every conflicted decision, every everything come alive. The book was more suspenseful and therefore more horrifying in its plausibility because of the narration and I wish everyone that reads the book would also take a listen to the audio. IT’S SO GOOD.


About Asheley

Asheley is a Southern girl. She loves Carolina blue skies, Ben & Jerry's ice cream, and NC craft beer. She loves all things history but prefers books over everything.

You can find her somewhere in North Carolina, daydreaming about the ocean.

Find Asheley on Litsy @intothehallofbooks!


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