Review: Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

underUnderground Airlines by Ben Winters (Mulholland Books, 336 pages)

Recommended for: Readers or fans of alternate history, historical fiction, or spy/crime/adventure stories. 

Underground Airlines is an intriguing, suspenseful alternate history novel which asks the question of What if the Civil War had never happened and slavery still existed? The reader is placed alongside an escaped slave named Victor in the “free” north where segregation is still grossly perpetuated in a United States where slavery is still practiced in the “Hard Four” states. He’s been captured under the Fugitive Persons Law by the government and made to be a “soul catcher,” finding escaped slaves and returning them to slavery.

Victor at first seems cold and unfeeling before one realizes he has his own ways of coping: “I was not a person but a manifestation of will. I was a mechanism—a device.” He is sent to capture his over-200th escaped slave while investing the modern representation of the Underground Railroad, hence the title. Almost immediately, the reader is reading a redemption tale—but will it be enough to justify the horrifying idea that slavery was never abolished?

“Freedman Town’s purpose is for the rest of the world. The world that sits, like Martha, with dark glasses on, staring from a distance, scared but safe. Create a pen like that, give people no choice but to live like animals, and then people get to point at them and say ‘Will you look at those animals? That’s what kind of people those people are.’ And that idea drifts up and out of Freedman Town like chimney smoke, black gets to mean poor and poor to mean dangerous and all the words get murked together and become one dark idea, a cloud of smoke, the smokestack fumes drifting like filthy air across the rest of the nation.”

Though some have deemed the world building Winters executes here a triumph, I found it hard to follow and a bit too fantastic at times, specifically his references to pop culture and black celebrities (Michael Jackson, James Brown). I would hope that in a world so different from ours, things would be more different and much worse. The writing was too often dry as well, and I didn’t care about the characters as much as I thought I would, probably because it takes way too long for Victor to explain why he’s so troubled by his situation. I also had a problem with the way women are represented in the novel, but that’s a discussion for another day. In all, despite the intriguing premise of the book, there wasn’t that much there to make it different from other novels covering stories of slavery except that the main character is working for the wrong side.

I am not a long-time fan of Ben Winters like many of the readers flocking to this book. I heard about it first on IndieNext and thought well, if indie booksellers like this one, then I’ll give it a go. I should have first remembered that books about slavery are so hard to read (I recently read Homegoing and with The Underground Railroad yet to review, I’m afraid of the timing). I’m not saying I want to shield myself and as a white person forget it happened, but my heart is so heavy given the events of July and these past few months. Much too late did I realize the horror of what I was reading: a book considering that slavery never ended when it did, written by a white man. While he was going for an eye opener, and something to reveal how this terrible occurrence isn’t really that far from the racism of our day, the more I read, the more disturbed I felt that this book was even written and a publisher jumped on it. I just couldn’t escape that. In all, to me it wasn’t that redeeming of a narrative, and so I fear the publisher accepted the work based solely on the alternate-history plot device. 3.5 stars.

That being said, a lot of people have loved this book, so if you’re at all curious, check it out here.  

For some, this book is going to be a brain churner, which is great. Book clubs who want to create a discussion on racism in America would probably like this book, as I’m sure there are many different opinions on its execution.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

so I finally read The Cursed Child but I’m not gonna spoil it for you

I finally got my hands on a copy of the highly hyped Harry Potter and the Cursed Child last week on a loan from a friend! I was so excited to dive in right away but decided to save it for Labor Day weekend when I went up north to stay at a cabin with family.

harry potter cursed child hammock.pngI ended up reading it mostly in a hammock right on the lakeshore. Heaven! (That was my in-law’s cabin in the background.)

First off, NO SPOILERS HERE. I’ll do my best to describe my thoughts briefly. It’s not like J. K. Rowling or Jack Thorne really need another review to boost book sales 😉 This was like a vacation book because of simply that: it was reading for fun. It’s also a play, so not really a book book.

My “rating”: 3 stars. Here’s why:

  • I really did enjoy reading it. It was definitely a little weird, but it was fun. Also because I didn’t get to read Harry Potter growing up, even though we’re the same age, so I didn’t finish the last book in the series until last summer. I’m a fan, I love them, but I’m not one of those dedicated people who begged for another book or are super critical of this one because they’ve spent so much time in that world.
  • That being said: please don’t call this “the 8th Harry Potter book” because it’s simply not. I only want this to be canon if we get to keep Scorpius. But also, no, please don’t let it be canon.
  • It reads like well-written fan fiction (I say well-written because one, this was actually published and most isn’t and two, I haven’t read any fan fiction. Except My Immortal but I couldn’t even finish that it was so bad).
  • Most of the characters didn’t feel true to themselves. Not a spoiler here, you know this from the synopsis: Harry was so insecure when I would have thought with all he had been through he would’ve been wiser and less immature. And also, isn’t Albus his second son? So why would he be having this parenting crisis now unless James was apparently the perfect child (we learn very little about James and that was kinda disappointing. Same with Rose, Ron and Hermione’s daughter).
  • The plot was very holey and contrived. Like, the central points of the plot were all WTF moments where I had to stop reading and ask, “why THIS? You had so many more places you could have gone with this story…”
  • Scorpius is the best ever, and the best thing to come out of this.
  • I wish I could see the play.

Yes, so there you have it.

The Cursed Child was a fun read to bring us back into the world of Hogwarts and get to see the legacy of Harry’s story, but it really only works as a play for the stage instead of taking the place of an “8th book” and being the say-all for our beloved characters. I’m sure the play is absolutely wonderful and I want to see how they bring all that magic to life. That’s the dream.

Have you read it yet? Without giving away spoilers, what did you think? Or, if you want to discuss spoilers, send me a message or email me!