Underground Airlines – Ben H. Winters
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 an 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.
Review: I think I should just give up on reading thrillers. Maybe it’s time to admit that they’re not my thing. I always feel so “Meh” about them. That was unfortunately the case with this one.
Underground Airlines is set in an alternate-present US. In this world, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while he was president-elect. The Civil War never happened, and slavery is still legal in four states. The story follows a former slave who calls himself Victor. He works undercover for the US government and is tasked with hunting down escaped slaves and returning them to the companies that own them. While pursuing a slave called Jackdaw, Victor has to infiltrate Underground Airlines, an abolitionist group. He discovers that the group may have information that could bring down slavery forever. Should Victor risk everything to become a double agent?
The alternate-history US setting is what got my attention. What if the Civil War never happened? That’s kind of a creepy thing to consider. The world-building in this book is well-researched and believable. It shows how different life would be if history had taken a different course. It’s also disturbing because there are people in the real world who’d probably love to live in a place run by white supremacists. As far as dystopian worlds go, this one is fairly realistic.
“Sometimes it's possible, just barely possible, to imagine a version of the world different from the existing one, a world in which there is true justice, heroic honesty, a clear perception possessed by each individual about how to treat all the others. Sometimes I swear I could see it, glittering in the pavement, glowing between the words in a stranger's sentence, a green, impossible vision—the world as it was meant to be, like a mist around the world as it is.” – Underground Airlines
If you like twisty plots, then this is the book for you. The pace is quick, and I was never able to predict what would happen next. The narrator is one of those kickass characters who’s always able to outthink the bad guys and get himself out of any situation. He rarely loses his cool while under pressure.
Even though the book is fast-paced, I had a hard time staying interested in the story. I think it’s because the characters didn’t feel real to me. The reader doesn’t get to know much about Victor. “Victor” isn’t even his real name. While he’s working undercover, he plays a variety of characters. We get to read a few flashbacks to his childhood, and we know that he genuinely feels guilty about his role in capturing slaves, but we never get to see the real Victor. Victor is nobody. Or everybody. Or whoever he needs to be to get his job done.
“I bore silent witness, thinking, there is no army of abolition. This is what the world has for heroes. Ordinary men, squabbling and prideful. Hassling each other, doing their best, busting the world free. And men like me, behind fake papers and clear-glass spectacles, keeping it chained.” – Underground Airlines
Thematically, Victor’s lack of identity makes sense. Victor has always been owned by other people. He’s had many different roles forced upon him. He’s never been allowed to develop his own identity. I understand all that, but since he’s nobody, I couldn’t get to know him. I wasn’t attached to him or invested in his journey. That made it hard for me to stay interested in the story.
This is a classic case of “It’s not you; it’s me.” I prefer books with a lot of character development. I think thrillers just aren’t the right genre for me because they’re usually plot-focused. If you like thrillers, then you’ll probably enjoy Underground Airlines a lot more than I did.
“Freedom is a matter of logistics.” – Underground Airlines