Review of “Underground Airlines” by Ben H. Winters

cover86227-mediumThanks to NetGalley and Random House UK, Cornerstone for the ARC of this book.

I wanted to read this book because I’ve heard it recommended strongly several times on separate NPR and Slate Magazine podcasts.

The book has a really intriguing premise; what would USA be like if the civil war had never happened and slavery was still legal in 4 (very stubborn) states? This premise has so much potential. Plantations are no longer beautiful white antebellum mansions but shining glass skyscrapers with underground rail transport systems and international trading; the union of the states relies on continuing compromise between trying to counteract the ill effects of slavery and conciliatory behaviour towards the slave states to prevent secession/war. It’s really hard to imagine an US where slavery still exists as a premise which is legally endorsed, but it’s really interesting to do so.

The main character is an escaped slave living in the North and making his living and ensuring his own freedom by catching other escaped slaves and sending them back South. This means he is a really complex and interesting character with guilt and conscience fighting with self-preservation.

This is all set up for a really great book and if I had been asked to review it when I was half-way through I would have given a glowing review; but oh! the ending! It is so unsatisfying compared to the rest of the book. I can only assume that the people in this book got so excited by the idea that they threw away a perfectly written ending and cobbled together this one in order to make the book into a series instead of a stand-alone novel. It is such a disappointing last 10% of the book.

WARNING SPOILERS from this point.

The main character gets himself trapped in a seemingly impossible to escape situation on the be miraculously freed by an unlikely character with little explanation of how or why. Another character is kidnapped and then returned with no explanation. The plot revolves around getting an envelope with anti-slavery evidence when this is retrieved it what it reveals is a bit sci-fi compared to the est of the novel and there’s no analysis of how this revelation impacts on the country or slavery. In the last couple of pages a completely new plot about rescuing a slave from an oil-rig is introduced randomly and not concluded.

All this was so frustrating because the rest of the book is really interesting and perfectly well-written but the ending is such a let down.

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