Monday, July 4, 2016

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

With all the discussion surrounding #ownvoices and representation in publishing I know some readers will be turned off this book because Ben Winters is White and judging by his Twitter feed is like all of this writer's woke ex-boyfriends. That said, I saw Attica Locke praising this book and I thought I’d give it a try.

 Spike Lee has this mockumentary C. S. A , about an alternate future where slavery never ended. Well, Underground Airlines is in that kind of world. It’s the 2010’s and there are still 4 Southern states where enslaving Black people is legal. We meet Victor, a runaway slave living in the North who has been conscripted by the US Marshall Service to locate and return runaway slaves to their owners. His latest mission takes him to Indianapolis, but he soon discovers this case isn't all it seems.

 Winters really built out this world well and there are so many little details about the global effects of slavery in the US. He slowly unravels this alternate history without it feeling plot dumpy--it's kind of amazing. Winter's is known as a mystery writer and he keeps this is mystery noir sensibility as we trail Victor on his latest case. The second half of the novel moves at a thriller pace and I couldn't stop reading.

I think Winters handles race well and I like the way he subverts the White savior trope. Several times characters make fun of  liberal White people for Mockingbirding--trying to save Black people so they can be seen as a good person.

My small complaint is that the plot twists seemed a little random at times and my biggest complaint is Winters can’t seem to write complete or complex female characters. Even in his Last Policeman series, women always end up being moms, or sisters or wives. They are never integral to the plot and don't have (I hate using this word) agency.

This was a tough read for me  because of the topic, but I'll be curious to read this book again in its finished form sometime in the future, it's not the kind of book I can re-read again right away. This was the first time I'd read a galley that was so clearly an in-progress work and I do want to see how final book shakes out.

Overall I thought Underground Airlines was a unique take on the mystery thriller genre with a haunting world that kept me up at night.

So...there is a lot of  speculative race fiction in publishing this year with Blackass by A. Igoni Barret about a Nigerian man who wakes up white and Into The White a YA bout the same thing except with  a teenage girl. I suspect this has to do with a shift away from writing The Struggle and towards dismantling ideas about privilege.

Also, can we talk about how this UK cover feels a little too on the nose ?

*Galley recieved at BEA

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