Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters

Underground Airlines
Ben H. Winters

From Goodreads

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.


This book had a lot of potential that was just wasted. An intriguing universe that seemed to be relatively well thought out (the little glimpses we got of it suggested there was more thought behind the scenes than on the page).

Unfortunately, in the quest to make this a thriller/mystery Winters ended up disappointing. The narrator was underdeveloped, nothing more than a cipher to let the greater story unfold upon. The argument could be made that that was the point, that our narrator was “no one” out of necessity, and therefore he was “everyone”. But at the end of the day it was hard to care about him or the bigger search of the novel. Caring about anything in this book was a lot harder than it should. The alternative history had so much potential!