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Sunday 9 October 2016

‘Underground Airlines’ by Ben H Winters

Published by Century,
14 July 2016.
ISBN: 978-1-780-89430-0

Present day America. Smartphones, McDonald's, Starbucks, social media. But in this America the Civil War never happened and slavery is a well-oiled industry in four of the states - the so-called ‘Hard Four’.

Victor has escaped his life as a slave, but his freedom came at a high price. Having struck a bargain with the government, he lives his life as a bounty hunter, tracking down slaves who have escaped from the Hard Four. A mystery to himself, Victor has suppressed his childhood memories and has convinced himself he is a good man doing what he needs to do to survive. He wants to keep his freedom, even if it comes at high price.

But in hunting his latest target, an escaped slave called Jackdaw, he senses something isn't quite right. As he pursues Jackdaw, he uncovers secrets relating to the Hard Four and their relationships with big business and the government. And he finds out that the fugitive carries something extraordinary. Something that could change America forever.

I found Underground Airlines (the title comes from the abolitionist group in the book who help escaped slaves) mesmerising, challenging, uncomfortable.

Victor is a fascinating and complex protagonist - not a slave, but still chained to the machine that makes slavery possible. He has been trying to forget where he came from, but gradually cracks appear in his armour and his memories threaten to overwhelm him.

Winters builds his alternative reality beautifully. His narrative is sprinkled with references to imagined historical events (for example, Jesse Owens won medals in the 1936 Olympics, but then defected to Russia ‘denouncing degenerate slave-state capitalism’), but he does it so deftly that you are drawn into his world without question. The line between Victor's world and ours is skillfully blurred.

On the surface, Underground Airlines is a well-crafted thriller, suspenseful and with fascinating characters. But not far below the surface is a philosophical debate about how one small change of events in history can put the world on a different path, a debate about racism and what it means, and about what it is to be human. He forces us to think and reevaluate what we think we know.

I loved it and am so glad to have read it.
Reviewer: Mary-Jane Riley

Ben H Winters was born in Maryland. He graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. He is the author of nine novels. Most recently World of Trouble, the concluding book in the Last Policeman trilogy. His latest book is Underground Airlines. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three children

 Mary-Jane Riley wrote her first story on her newly acquired blue Petite typewriter. She was eight. It was about a gang of children who had adventures on mysterious islands, but she soon realised Enid Blyton had cornered that particular market. So she wrote about the Wild West instead. When she grew up she had to earn a living, and became a BBC radio talk show presenter and journalist. She has covered many life-affirming stories, but also some of the darkest events of the past two decades. Then, in true journalistic style, she decided not to let the facts get in the way of a good story and got creative. She wrote for women's magazines and small presses. She formed WriteOutLoud with two writer friends to help charities get their message across using their life stories. Now she is writing psychological suspense, drawing on her experiences in journalism. The Bad Things by Mary-Jane Riley was published by Harper Collins/Killer Reads. Her second book, After She Fell, also published by Killer Reads, is out on April 28th. In her spare time Mary-Jane likes to walk the dog and eat a lot. Good job she likes walking.

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