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Publisher's Summary

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 Marshal 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.

Underground Airlines is a groundbreaking novel, a wickedly imaginative thriller, and a story of an America that is more like our own than we'd like to believe.

©2016 Ben Winters (P)2016 Hachette Audio

Critic Reviews

"Underground Airlines is a work of astonishing originality and ambition. Like the best art, it forces us to question our own assumptions. Is the machine of modern civilization really that far removed from the alternate reality that Winters presents here? We're all implicated in this unsettling and visionary novel. Ben Winters is one brave writer." (Patrick Millikin, The Poisoned Pen Bookstore)
"A daring and very well constructed novel." (Booklist)
"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 best-selling author of Wool)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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  • Joel
  • NEWPORT BEACH, CA, United States
  • 02-04-17

Great Setting, So-So Story

After reading Ben H. Winters trilogy, The Last Policeman, I became cautiously optimistic about his latest venture Underground Airlines. On the surface, it's a novel that takes place in an alternative history where the Civil War didn't take place, and slavery wasn't abolished. Instead, it was relegated to four southern states. To avoid war a new set of amendments were added to the constitution that made it impossible to abolish slavery without basically disbanding the entire constitution. A compromise to avoid the Civil War.

Underground Airlines, similar to Winters past trilogy, at times falls victim to its lofty setting. I found myself far more interested in the alternative version of reality than the plight of Victor, the stories main character. Without spoiling anything, Victor is in charge of tracking down runaway slaves who are trying to escape via the "underground airlines." With a very successful track record, Victor is set to find Jackdaw, the latest runaway, but he realizes really quick that this isn't the typical case.

I never really became part of Team Victor. Winters still doesn't do much with character development, instead leans heavier into the setting and the world than in the mystery of the case. At times I actually wondered if this book would have been better off as just a straight alternative history, instead of a mystery/thriller set in an alternative history. I will say though that you could still make some interesting parallels into the real world and this fictitious world that was quite biting.

As much as I love the setting, the actual moment to moment story and characters fell flat. It felt a lot like the first novel in The Last Policeman where it wasn't until later books that you ever really cared about any of the characters. Underground Airlines ended up being a solid story in a fascinating world.

11 of 11 people found this review helpful

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Interesting what if...

Imagine a USA without a civil war and slavery was still legal in 2016. This is the premise of Underground Airlines. It's an interesting way to frame and examine racism today and how it may not be all that far removed from that distant past, and it's intimate connection. The story is like a crime novel, and it moves along nicely. I recommend the story.

William DeMerrit is excellent. Each character is uniquely and expertly performed. I look forward to hearing his other work.

11 of 12 people found this review helpful

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A CLEAN HAND STATE

HE SMILED, I SMILED, WE SMILED AT EACH OTHER.
If I graded on concept alone, I would give this an A+. If I graded on language alone, I would give this an A. On storyline, a B-, on character development a C. For the first hour I was completely enthralled due to the whole concept of the story and I loved the magical why Ben puts together words. This is one of those classical type of books where you often get three different words to describe one feeling or sight or whatever.

I CAUGHT MYSELF COMPLETELY ALONE IN THE PRESENCE OF MYSELF
What Ben could not due was get me involved in the story, get me in the head of the main character, Victor and get me to care what was happening. Once I was used to the new idea and once Ben explored how this new world works, and the newness wore off, I did not have a story or character that stuck with me.

EVERYTHING'S EVERYBODIES
Joel from Newport Beach, writes a more articulate review, voicing better, what I am trying to say.

72 of 85 people found this review helpful

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Excellent book!!

I loved this book. I could not stop listening to it!The story was very creative and wound along paths that you did not expect. It is spellbinding

I really liked the main character.

The narration, which can destroy a good book, was excellent.

Ben Winters is a very good writer. This is the first book of his that I read. I am going to read another one very soon!

8 of 9 people found this review helpful

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  • Mark
  • Waltham, MA, United States
  • 10-29-17

Original and disturbing novel

The first half of this story was interesting but only mildly engaging. In this revisionist historical novel, the Civil War was not fought, and there is still slavery in the modern day deep south. The narrator is a black man who captures runaway slaves in the north (doing the devil's work, as he describes it). The novel has a slow noir feel to it and a very original premise. I was intrigued early on. The novel gets more engaging and faster paced in the second half, when we learn more about this slave catcher. When the story moves into slave territory in the south, it is at its most disturbing and most riveting. This is a novel that stayed with me after I finished it. It was worth the listen!

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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There but for the grace of God...

A smart, compelling story that transports the listener to a world that could so easily be ours. The performance is riveting, thanks to the narrator, who makes you connect with the characters while opening your eyes to the small and large differences in this alternate America. The writer has captured An important reflection at an important time in America's history. Highly recommended to all who want to be reminded of just how far we've come even as we are eager to go farther still. Race relations in America - as it could have been.

6 of 7 people found this review helpful

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Old Times There Aren't Forgotten

Quite a compelling read... Some well thought speculation on the what if front, and it's more alternate current events than alternate history;). The idea of slaves as stock/chattle is pulled off incisively w/o beating you over the head;). The story moves well and has some delightful turnarounds woven. Into the central plot and overall storyline... It paints a grim picture of how the country coulda turned out drastically different, although in many ways maybe not so much... Puts a whole new spin on the idea of profiling and enhanced interrogation... The pace and flow never lags making it a decent binge read;). Characters are well done, but Victor and Martha shoulder the load... Particularly impressed w/ the sequences of victor's memories of his time as a person bonded... On that same note, thought that his past could have been a bit more complete... Narration is average, and fairly slow, but plays relatively well at 1.25x... Definitely worth the credit...

16 of 20 people found this review helpful

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A- The 2nd half of this masterpiece falters

The 2nd half of this masterpiece falters a little, but still well worth a listen/read.

9 of 11 people found this review helpful

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"Everything Happens"

A great premise, well plotted and executed, wryly humorous. Solid narrator, William DeMeritt, who handles the introspective passages and character dialog equally adroitly. This is more like an American Noir antihero driven story than an Alt History. While unfortunately timely, the book isn't a preachy polemic, or a nerdy fleshing out of an alternate timeline. It's very much like modern America with the conceit throwing its contradictions into relief without tedious exposition. The good aren't as good as they think and evil is more prosaic than dastardly. It's about a man against himself more than his adversaries or circumstances. He's got layers and goes all the way down. He's good, isn't he? Ultimately it's a great story, worth your time and not a trendy edifying read for false liberal solidarity. Winters opened himself up to all sorts of backlash to write this story but acquits himself splendidly.

9 of 11 people found this review helpful

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Wear a Seatbelt Because You Won't See The Turns

I wasn't familiar with this author, but I saw he was going to make an appearance in a local bookstore and was curious what he was promoting, so I looked him up. When I saw that the book was set in my home town, Indianapolis, I was intrigued. It was available on Audible, I had a credit, and that's how it started.

I usually read straight mysteries, so this was a little different for me. I liked the narrator very much, so much so that I didn't speed up the playback.

Victor is a very interesting character: hardened by life, trying to stay detached, but not soulless. He tracks runaway slaves and can successfully infiltrate abolitionism groups because he is Black. He has freedom but is not free.

His current case has not been well defined for him and he's struggling. The more he figures out, the more he knows that the real case is not the one that he's investigating. What is the underlying story?

I wasn't as charmed by Martha. I wasn't sure who she really was.

The book is divided into three parts. Once I got into the third part, I couldn't put it down. I also rewound several times just to make sure I was keeping everything straight.


This was a very interesting and thought-provoking read on what might have been. I like a book that makes me think. This is that book.

I would have liked to have given it 4.5 stars because there were a few continuity issues, but it was better than 4 stars so I rounded up.

5 of 6 people found this review helpful