Underground Airlines is an almost painfully timely novel. In the wake of disingenuous Brexit campaigns, #BlackLivesMatter and Donald Trump’s wall-building plans, an alternate history story that tackles the thorny issue of race relations feels all too relevant. Don’t be put off by the politics – it’s also a compelling thriller with a complex hero.
Victor – aka Jim, or Brother, or any of a dozen other aliases he uses – is a soul catcher. In an alternate version of the US where the Civil War didn’t happen, slavery still exists. A former slave himself, Victor is employed by the US Marshals to track escaped slaves and return them to their owners.
It’s a job he excels at even as it eats away at his conscience, so when he sees a chance to escape through catching a particularly important runaway, he jumps at it. Inevitably, things aren’t that simple, and ‘freedom’ becomes ever more complicated.
The world building in this novel is fascinating. Removing the abolition of slavery from US history doesn’t change everything, but it changes enough: the relationship between the US and the rest of the world has shifted, while the country itself is less united than it should be.
The characters, too, are well drawn and hugely sympathetic; everyone Victor encounters is fighting a battle of one kind or another, nothing is easy.
The best genre fiction reflects reality, and offers either a warning or a promise about how life could be. It is both distressing and provides a glimmer of hope.