Title – Underground Airlines
Author – Ben H Winters
Published – 2016
Genre – Alternative History
I know that there are a lot of bloggers who believe that if you don’t enjoy a book you should just keep it to yourself and only share positive reviews. I’m not one of them. If you’ve been following my blog for a while you will know that I am a huge fan of ‘The Last Policeman‘ trilogy by Ben H Winters so I was thrilled when I heard he had a new book being published and even treated myself to a signed, limited edition copy, but perhaps, for once, I should have waited to find out more about the book because I’ve come across alternative histories before that I’ve thought sounded interesting but were disappointing in their execution.
What if slavery had never been abolished? The story is set in the present time but in an America where slavery still exists, shaped differently as a result of the Civil War. The protagonist is ‘Victor’, a man who works undercover to track down escaped slaves, thwarting the efforts of the “underground airlines” who try to help these unfortunates escape to freedom. The rub here is that Victor is himself black (‘moderate charcoal, brass highlights, #41’) and this isn’t a career he is pursuing of his own fee will.
Sent to Indianapolis to pursue ‘Jackdaw’, Victor is unsettled by a number of anomalies in the case he is being asked to investigate and equally disturbed by his unanticipated involvement with a young mother and her son. His undercover work and investigations contribute the thriller element to the book as the truth about Jackdaw and his escape point to larger forces at work.
I found the book incredibly slow, there was a lot of internal dialogue from Victor and a lack of pace. I also didn’t find Victor a particularly gripping character, within the story he is something of a chameleon and perhaps that didn’t help me to engage with him. If you compare him to Hank from The Last Policeman he was (literally) worlds apart. I appreciate that the subject is an incredibly serious one, so a lack of any sort of levity might be expected, but while the end of the world wasn’t exactly a laughing matter there was still humour to be found.
I appreciate that the issue is thorught-provoking but instead of raising deep questions about race and the risks of ignoring where we’ve come from and what we’ve learned, my thoughts were on a much more prosaic level about the practicalities of the world Winters had created. The book made reference to real historical characters (from world leaders to musicians) but that distracted me by wanting to know more of the ‘how did that happen?’ or ‘what about so-and-so?’.
Perhaps my disappointment in the book has as much to do with this being outside my usual genre as anything else. I’m not sure if that means I should read more widely so my expectations are better managed or stick more narrowly to what I know I like (and I have romance book to review that makes me think the latter may be the best option). Perhaps the subject matter, especially at the present time, feels too uncomfortable and the lessons too worthy to make it enjoyable fiction?