Underground Airlines by Ben H Winters

Underground AirlinesModern day USA. Everyone is going about their normal business. Everything is as it seems – except that in this America, the Civil War never happened, and, in the South, slavery was never abolished.

Enter Victor (or so he calls himself), a black man working for the federal government. His job? To track down those slaves who have escaped to the North and return them. But what would make someone do a job like that?

Victor is currently trying to track down an escapee called Jackdaw, but to do so, he will have to infiltrate the so-called Underground Airlines, the collaboration of people who are aiding the escapees. But this time, things aren’t what they seem – and what Jackdaw knows has the potential to change the country forever…

Ben H Winters, you may recall, was the writer of the outstanding The Last Policeman trilogy – The Last Policeman, Countdown City, World Of Trouble – concerning a detective (duh) in a world that was about to end. You also may recall me banging on (and on) about how good that series was. And if you haven’t read it, there’s still time before the world really ends (i.e. when President Trump gets too curious about whether that big red button really works). But as that trilogy finished as finally as a story possibly could, it’s time for a new tale. I honestly don’t know if this is a standalone novel or whether there are more stories to tell of this alternate history, but I really hope that there are.

Let’s get one thing clear – I’m from England with only a half-decent knowledge of US history. There are probably swathes of little bits of changed history that went right over my head. There are some clever bits that I did notice, but I’m pretty sure that better informed readers will spot even more. And it’s fair to say, I can’t judge the extrapolation of the slave experiences into the twenty-first century. I’ll leave it to people who are well-versed in that aspect of history to judge how successful Winters was with that.

What I can say is that it is a damn good story, intelligently thought out and full of twists and turns. The central character’s actions and conflicts are well-thought out and presents an obvious and yet under-stated parallel with the people he’s hunting down – but “Victor” is in a situation with no easy answers for anyone and his conflict and gradual awakening is well presented and convincing, and the plot moves forward at a sensible pace, keeping the reader’s attention constantly. One notion towards the end of the book seemed at first a little jarring but when I reminded myself that the story is set in the present day, then it actually made a lot of sense.

For regular readers of the blog, this is by no means a mystery novel, but an alternate-history thriller, which is an utterly compelling read. Highly Recommended.


  1. when President Trump gets too curious about whether that big red button really works

    No, no, no! The real danger is when Melania remembers seeing Dr Strangelove . . .


  2. The cover design is really weird – I couldn’t make out what the titles was! However, I do enjoy counterfactual history novels when they are done well (I’m think of Dick’s MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE and most especiallty Len Deighton’s criminally under-regarded masterpiece, SS-GB) – cheers mate, didn’t know the book was out.


  3. Glad to see that you liked this. My husband bought a copy, and we are both fans of The Last Policeman trilogy, but I was not sure about this one.


  4. Sorry, I was definitely not clear there. Not sure whether I wanted to read it. I was waiting to see what he thought (he hasn’t started it yet). Based on your review, I will definitely read it.

    Also, I can’t decide if I like the UK cover better than the US cover. The UK cover is definitely brighter.


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