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Underground Airlines
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Underground Airlines

4.9 8
by Ben H. Winters

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A New York Times Bestseller; a Goodreads Choice finalist; named one of the Best Books of the Year by NPR, Slate, Publishers Weekly, Hudson Bookseller, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kirkus Reviews, AudioFile Magazine, and Amazon

It is the present-day, and the world is as we know it: smartphones, social networking and Happy


A New York Times Bestseller; a Goodreads Choice finalist; named one of the Best Books of the Year by NPR, Slate, Publishers Weekly, Hudson Bookseller, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kirkus Reviews, AudioFile Magazine, and Amazon

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.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Jean Zimmerman
An immersive thriller as well as a provocative alternative history, Underground Airlines showcases a fully realized central character who believes his own disturbing past can be kept safely buried. But history has a way of bubbling to the surface of the present. Winters succeeds in rendering the slave catcher monstrous but capable of redemption as Victor's sympathies shift to the underground side.
Publishers Weekly
★ 05/02/2016
Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man meets Blade Runner in this outstanding alternate history thriller from Edgar-winner Winters (The Last Policeman). Victor, an African-American bounty hunter for the U.S. Marshals Service, possesses a supreme talent for tracking down runaway slaves in a world in which there was no Civil War and slavery still exists in four Southern states. He’s a master of disguise and dissembling. Victor tracks a runaway slave code-named Jackdaw to Indianapolis, Ind., where he ingratiates himself with Father Barton, a purported leader of an abolitionist organization called Underground Airlines, and succeeds in penetrating the group. But soon thereafter Victor impulsively befriends Martha Flowers, a down-on-her-luck white woman traveling with her young biracial son, Lionel, a kindness that soon jeopardizes Victor’s carefully constructed cover identity. The novel’s closing section contains several breathtaking reversals, a genuinely disturbing revelation, and an exhilarating final course of action for Victor. Agent: Joelle Delbourgo, Joelle Delbourgo Associates. (July)
From the Publisher
A New York Times Bestseller; a Goodreads Choice finalist; named one of the Best Books of the Year by NPR, Slate, Publishers Weekly, Hudson Bookseller, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kirkus Reviews, AudioFile Magazine, and Amazon

"This one kept me up at night and changed the way I saw the world once I was finished."—Ann Patchett, Time

"An extraordinary work of alternate history . . . Indisputably a winner"—Maureen Corrigan, NPR

"Underground Airlines is a masterful work of art with a gripping mystery at its most basic level. It's also a complex allegory woven throughout with sparking rich dialogue and multiple shades of awareness. Passengers, fasten your seat belts. The ride may be turbulent, but that's what makes it great."—Jen Forbus, Christian Science Monitor

"A swift, smart, angry new novel . . . Its vibrant imagination never slackens. . . . As a feat of world-building, Underground Airlines is astonishing, immediately taking its place in the genre's very first rank."—Charles Finch, USA Today

"[Winters] paints a convincing picture of what fugitive life would look like in our own era... he wants to get us to see the past in the present-the innumerable ways that we still live in a world made by slavery."—Kathryn Schulz, The New Yorker

"An immersive thriller as well as a provocative alternative history, 'Underground Airlines' showcases a fully realized central character who believes his own disturbing past can be kept safely buried. But history has a way of bubbling to the surface of the present."—Jean Zimmerman, New York Times Book Review

"[A] striking work of speculative fiction . . . Winters creates a powerful and timely ethical framework for his fast-moving new thriller."—Jane Ciabattari, BBC

"Chilling"—Alexandra Alter, New York Times

"The novel succeeds so well in part because its fiction is disturbingly close to our present reality... Winters has written a book that will make you see the world in a new light."

The Washington Post

"Like Victor, Winters, who is white, has a wonderful ability to inhabit different characters...[and] creates a believable world out of telling details...The voices he conjures can be rough, but they ring true...As the book twists and turns to its conclusion, only one thing is clear. This is not a problem that will be easily solved, in Victor's world or in ours."

- The Boston Globe

"Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man meets Blade Runner in this outstanding alternate history thriller. . . . The novel's closing section contains several breathtaking reversals, a genuinely disturbing revelation, and an exhilarating final course of action for Victor."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Explosive, well plotted, and impossible to put down, this alt-hist by the Edgar Award-winning author of the "Last Policeman" trilogy will attract readers of all genres. . . . Fast paced and filled with menace, the story has an ambience that makes it special."—Library Journal (starred)

"A daring and very well constructed novel"—Booklist

"Astonishing . . . A timely novel focusing on race and equality . . . Winters handles the controversial topic with sensitivity, yet isn't afraid to ask some bold questions along the way."—BookPage

"[Underground Airlines] is powerful, suspenseful, and devastating-hard to put down, even harder to forget."—Family Circle

"Strange, modern . . . [A] genre-bending detective yarn"—Oprah.com

"This is a smart and compelling thriller, set in an alternate reality that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to our own."


"Underground Airlines is a masterwork of world-building...[the book] gives you an incredibly complex character to explore it with, ensuring that your attention is well-spent down to the last page." —- LitReactor

"A top-flight thriller that's as emotionally searing and tragically plausible as anything in contemporary fiction."—Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians

"The most timely of alternate history novels. Ben Winters has created a spellbinding world that forces the reader to look around-and to look within. This is a thriller not to be missed and one that will not be easily forgotten."—Hugh Howey, New York Times-bestselling author of Wool

"Underground Airlines is bold, brilliant, and beautiful -- everything you could want from a novel, Ben Winters delivers ten-fold. He's a writer to watch, one of exceptional vision and imagination whose characters draw the reader in to the point that an alternate history seems not only plausible, but the only one that counts until the final page."—Michael Koryta, author of Those Who Wish Me Dead

"A rich noir in a terrifingly convincing alternate America. It's both beautiful and brutal. The Handmaid's Tale for Black Lives Matter."—Lauren Beukes, author of Broken Monsters and The Shining Girls

"Underground Airlines is like nothing I have ever read before. I know it will be a pivot point in my reading life. Thought you'd wrestled sufficiently with the stain of Slavery? Have a seat. You'll only need the edge. By spinning a pounding thriller in a past that did not happen, Winters has somehow wrapped his hands around the catastrophe that did. This is how it might have been, I kept thinking, if history had gone that way. But the moral shock at the heart of the book: Winters's rabbit hole is not strange enough, the gulf between that and this is not wide enough. Underground Airlines does what all great speculative fiction wants to do - show the reader that Everything is possible. That's the good news and bad. The novel's many-named narrator descends from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man - his voice is mesmeric, it comes from any corner, it can boil with savagery, sing with grace or do pretty much anything in between. Oh, and he descends from Jason Bourne as well; he has mad field skills. So does Winters. You're set down in motion on a tilted mirror and then it's turn after gripping turn - my every next hour depended on which way he went."—David Shafer, National Bestselling author of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

"It is a rare thing when a writer has a fresh new provocative idea - and then executes it beautifully. This is what Ben H. Winters has done in his novel Underground Airlines. Imagine an America in which slavery still exists. Now imagine a dramatic telling of the story."—James Patterson

"Brilliantly written, terrifyingly conceived, Underground Airlines had me from the first page to the last. Many writers might have been content to set a few characters loose in the middle of the kind of powerful premise - slavery in four states never ended -put to work here, but Winters gives us gripping plot, clear-eyed social commentary and chilling implications. This may be alternate history, but what it has to say about actual, enduring race and racism cuts awfully close to the 21st century American bone."—Laird Hunt, author of Neverhome

"Smart, quick and tricky, Ben Winters knows how to pull off a high-concept thriller. Fans of The Man in the High Castle will love Underground Airlines."—Stewart O'Nan, author of The Speed Queen

Library Journal
★ 04/15/2016
In this alternative history, President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated en route to his inauguration. His death leads legislators to come together with one last proposal to keep the Union intact. It works, and today the status of slavery is decided state by state. In the Hard Four states, "peebs" (Persons Bound to Labor) are legally enchained, working 12 hours on and eight off. If a peeb escapes, the federal government is enjoined to find and return him to his owners. Victor works undercover for the U.S. Marshals, tracking down other black men. Now he's hunting a peeb named Jackdaw. Something's wrong, though, and he can't figure out what. Fast paced and filled with menace, the story has an ambience that makes it special. In Victor's supposedly "free" world, everywhere there are traps for people of color—free doesn't mean equal and definitely doesn't mean safe. What's startling is that Victor's experiences could well happen in the contemporary world. VERDICT Explosive, well plotted, and impossible to put down, this alt-hist by the Edgar Award-winning author of the "Last Policeman" trilogy will attract readers of all genres. [See Prepub Alert, 1/25/16.]
Kirkus Reviews
Imagine: there was no Civil War, and the Confederacy has morphed into a low-tech Matrix. That's the territory that Winters (The Last Policeman, 2012, etc.) explores in this memorable tale. It's a scenario worthy of Philip K. Dick: the U.S. is still part-slave, part-free, with the "Hard Four" states—a unified North and South Carolina foremost among them—clinging resolutely to the old ways even as those pesky moralists the Europeans "draw no distinction between the slavery-practicing states and the slavery-tolerating ones" and as right-thinking Northerners figure out ways to resist the modern equivalent of the Fugitive Slave Act. Winters probes the possibilities: outside the Hard Four, who benefits from the trade in human flesh? Where do new slaves come from, now that transcontinental traffic is banned? How deeply can his antiheroic hero, a manumitted slave-turned-bounty hunter currently calling himself Victor, participate in the system without being forever stained? He has his motives, understandable if not noble, that send him careening into other people's self-interests; he's on the hunt for a runaway named Jackdaw who may have hopped a plane for China with a pile of Southern T-shirts—or who may instead have made his way to someplace relatively safe, like Indianapolis. For the most part, Winters neatly blends dystopian fiction with old-fashioned procedural. The story gets a little wobbly toward the end, with Boys from Brazil undertones more befitting sci-fi, a genre in which Winters has also worked. Readers with a strong attachment to verisimilitude may balk at the strange turn, but in the end, the twist makes good sense. If it lacks all the dramatic punch it might have had—the storyline hesitates at a couple of key moments, just when Victor is making his most disturbing discoveries—Winters' yarn still works. Smart and well paced. The story could use a little fine-tuning, but it moves deftly from a terrific premise and builds to a satisfying conclusion.

Product Details

Little, Brown and Company
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.20(d)


Meet the Author

Ben H. Winters is the author of, most recently, World of Trouble, the concluding book in the Last Policeman trilogy. The second book, Countdown City, was an NPR Best Book of 2013 and the winner of the Philip K. Dick Award for Distinguished Science Fiction. The Last Policeman was the recipient of the 2012 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America; it was also named one of the Best Books of 2012 by Amazon.com and Slate.

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Underground Airlines 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous 4 months ago
theresma More than 1 year ago
Although it has as its premise the pre-inauguration assassination of Lincoln (and the subsequent never-abolishing of slavery in the US), this book is less about race-based slavery per se, and more about what happens when a country dehumanizes an entire group of people. In the words of the protagonist, "Everything happens." Victor (a.k.a. Jim Dirkson, a.k.a. Brother) is a fascinating, multi-layered character who illustrates painfully and realistically what happens when a person commits a grievous wrong to save his own skin. ***SPOILER ALERT*** Victor's killing of his own brother at age 14 to ensure his own escape from slavery on Bell's Farm traps him in a prison of guilt as powerful as the "leash" of his government-implanted tracking chip in its ability to convince him that he must keep doing wrong, and that (as he says toward the end of the book) "everything I've gotten since I have deserved." Reminiscent both of Abby Johnson's "Unplanned" and of Stephen Fry's *Making History,* Winter's scorching, soul-tearing chronicle shows the depths to which humanity can sink when evil goes unchecked as well as the soul-killing effects that such evil has even on its most bystander-ish participants and beneficiaries. Fortunately for the reader (and for humanity), Winter also points the way out. What can happen when a human being repents of his own evil choices and decides to fight? "Everything can happen. Everything is possible." I plan to give this book to everyone on my gift list. I only wish I could give it to people I don't know.
Lilac_Wolf More than 1 year ago
A Lilac Wolf and Stuff Review **I received a copy of this book from my library in exchange for absolutely nothing - and I love them for it.** This book deserves a review. It has to be one of the most powerful novels I've read in a long time. Ben is a master at mashing up genres. The Last Policeman trilogy, which I also reviewed, was science fiction, dystopian, apocalyptic and most of all a mystery. But how to review something like this? It really has to go into what genre...science fiction? Fantasy? It's an alternate universe story that asks, what would our reality be like if the Civil War never happened? If slavery were still legal today? And his take on that is disturbing. I'm not saying it's a bad story or he's a bad author. It's a fantastic story and he's a great author. But the level of open hostility and racism that is not only allowed, but expected. This is especially true in the Big Four - the remaining four states that still have slavery. I think Ben really went out there to write a character that was not only a black man, but also a former slave, and a U.S. Marshall tasked with capturing escaped slaves. Just imagine the nuances of this character...how conflicted does he have to feel? It is full of flashbacks to his childhood, his brother, and ultimately how he ended up where he is currently. The thing that bothered me the most, is that the racism in this universe isn't that different from what we are still seeing in our own timeline. I think this book really shines a stage light on one of the most important issues with our country. There was a certain amount of hope in this story, but our main character doesn't seem to have any. He is convinced nothing will change, and his having the perspective of having been a slave and knowing how easily he could be back there colors that. I can't do this one justice. You just have to read it. You won't find solutions, but you will find something to chew on and a great story to go along with it.
CherylM-M More than 1 year ago
The most worrying element of this story is the plausibility of this scenario. What could have been and what could still be. The topic of racism is at the forefront of society, as we watch the civil unrest in the US rise and the topic of refugees cause conflict in Europe. The truth is racism has always been an underlying issue in the US. The civil movement, segregation and slavery isn’t really that long ago. So this story is en-vogue in a sense, and the premise is a red flag with absolutely realistic scenarios. In this book slavery was never abolished. in fact it has become a well oiled industry. It is also supposedly a humane industry, but hey it’s slavery and greedy men will always exploit the vulnerable. Instead of humane treatment, the slaves, known as PBL’s ‘person bound by labour’ suffer pain and humiliation at the hands of their captors. Some of them are even killed, despite it being illegal to do so. Victor was once a PBL who escaped the injustice of his situation only to be forced into a new kind of slavery. He is what the Kapos were to the concentration camp inmates. He is a betrayer to his own people. It’s his job to hunt down the ones who are lucky enough to escape. I like the fact Winters has had the gumption to take the idea back to the beginning of the end and change the historical narrative. This is what half of the country wanted and what it could possibly have evolved into under a different set of circumstances. To be completely frank the Pigmentation Taxonomies really struck a chord with me. It or the descriptions bring the inhumanity of it all to the forefront: moderate charcoal, brass highlights #41, moderate chestnut, sunflower highlights #142 or twilight, purple tone #122. It objectifies all of them in a way I can’t even begin to fathom and could never relate to. Underground Airlines serves as a stark reminder of the race issues that simmer under the surface and how much damage the social philosophy of eugenics has caused and continues to cause. We are one race, the human race. As I said, it’s a powerful thought-provoking premise and read. *I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.*
KarenfromDothan More than 1 year ago
From award winning writer Ben H. Winters comes a book where history has been remade. In this version Lincoln was assassinated before he ever became President. The Civil War never happened. Instead a deal was struck and a constitutional amendment was passed forevermore making slavery legal. Fast forward to the present, and three million people are enslaved in the Hard Four. A covert organization known as the “Underground Airlines,” does what it can by spiriting some of the luckier ones out of the south and northward into Canada and freedom. The U.S. Marshalls Service uses captured runaway slaves to track down the escapees by any means possible. What a fantastic protagonist! He’s whip-smart, tough, a chameleon, but most of all a survivor. The author does a terrific job of taking an idea, writing a story and making it seem so real. The tension and suspense throughout the book is palpable. A hauntingly good read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well done
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago