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Underground Airlines

Narrated by: William DeMeritt
Length: 9 hrs and 28 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (4,016 ratings)

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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

Overall

  • 4.5 out of 5 stars
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Story

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars

An Inventive Novel from Takeoff until Landing

'Underground Airlines' may be the most inventive book I have read this year. While slave narratives have been markedly on the increase in the last year or two, Winters offers a fresh, thrilling approach to this somewhat belabored genre.

I will avoid a plot summary, as this is easily found online and too much information could inadvertently lead to spoilers. The novel reads more like a mystery/thriller than a traditional literary work, though I do not mean that in a bad way. I read the novel in a span of two days and could barely resist putting it down. I continually kept thinking about the characters, shifting plot and felt compelled to keep pressing forward with the story. I believe any novel's aim - beyond education, entertainment or both - should be to engage, and 'Underground Airlines' did this for me.

My one criticism would be Winters' use of alternate history. I found his tweaking of 19th and 20th century American history to be unique, thought-provoking and decently plausible. However, he did not take it far enough for me. While some would argue this is the fulcrum of the book, I would beg to disagree. I felt like Winters wanted to tell a story of modern racism, and he needed to utilize the idea of overt modern slavery to fit his narrative. While his writing is successful, I couldn't help but feel his alternative world was a mere gimmick to prop up his exposition on race relations. That's unfortunate, as I feel dystopian/alternate narratives often do not work - they are at once too primitive or too sci-fi - and his felt spot-on. I felt his alternative world could have been expanded and explored in much more detail without causing the story to feel overwrought.

In the grand scheme, however, this is a minor quibble. I feel many, if not most, works of contemporary fiction feel contrived and like they try to make a denouement greater than the sum of their parts. Winters combines a sensitive subject, an alternative history and a unique literary voice to create a sublime work of fiction and one of the most provoking reads of 2016.

Lastly, William DeMeritt's narration was among the top three I have ever listened to. His accents, voices and cadence are sheer perfection. Highly recommended.

18 of 18 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
  • 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!

88 of 92 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
  • 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.

82 of 88 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

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.

23 of 25 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
  • Topken
  • Sterling, VA USA
  • 06-12-18

Loved the Premise. The story, not so much.

The premise offered so much potential but I found the storyline disjointed and confusing. The characters were incomplete and the pieces did not come together.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Extremely entertaining but . . .

Any additional comments?

This book is extremely entertaining, but once it was finished I felt Winters had exploited the highly charged subject matter of race and slavery in America for emotional affect. Other than some simplistic ideas like slavery is bad/immoral and racism is cruel and unjust, there's not much to take away. No broader truths are unveiled forcing the reader to think about race in more nuanced or complex ways. No seeing our America differently as a result of this alternative history. Yet Winters hurls the N-word along with racial stereotypes and horrific imagery in ways that propel the narrative. Using such content easily pushes emotional buttons. But alas, once the book ends, it seems like yet one more case of a white man telling the story of what it is to be a black man; using dialogue he could never actually use in his real life and all for the purpose of entertainment. Of course, creative license is legitimate and I wouldn't ever say people shouldn't write from the perspective of someone else, but maybe it's time we gave this specific relationship (white man writing as a black man) a break.

19 of 21 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

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!

25 of 28 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

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.

17 of 19 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

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.

32 of 37 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
  • Wayne
  • Matthews, NC
  • 11-19-18

Interesting concept with decent implementation

UNDERGROUND AIRLINES is an alternate history which posits that the US Civil War never took place and that four states still have slaves. If slaves escape the US Constitution requires that the US Marshall Service return slaves to their owners. Victor is the young black protagonist who works as a bounty hunter for the Marshall Service. The real strength of Underground Airlines is narration by William DeMeritt.

7 of 8 people found this review helpful