Finished July 17
Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
This novel of is set in a United States with an alternate history. This is a United States that didn't go through a Civil War, where Abraham Lincoln was killed just a bit earlier than in our reality, where slavery still exists in some states.
Given the state of things in the U.S. today, this is a novel with a terrifying premise. Victor is a black man working as an undercover slave hunter for the U.S. Marshall Service, in their mandate to enforce the 1793 Fugitive Persons Law. Why would a black man take on such a job? Easy, Victor himself is an escaped slave, blackmailed into this role to maintain his own freedom from being returned to that life.
The Underground Airlines of the title is the modern name for the Underground Railroad, still trying to free people, move them north, and help some of them exit the country entirely, many to Canada. At the point of this novel, there are only four states that still have slavery, known as the Hard Four. Other slave states renounced slavery at various times, and for various reasons. There are rules around the products that come from the slave states. Some other states have enacted Clean Hands laws to keep such goods out of the hands of their citizens. Some countries won't trade with the U.S. because of their situation.
With this particular case, Victor finds himself less able to distance himself from what he is doing, caught up in his own memories of slavery, escape, and a life of looking over his shoulder. The file is messy and raises questions, and the reaction of his unseen handler back in Washington is not normal for their interaction on these cases.
Staying at the same hotel as Victor is a white woman and her black son. Victor also gets drawn into their story, and finds a connection he didn't expect.
Winters has built a world with a history, laws, international connections, and corruption that feels so possible it is scary. Black people's skin colour is classified with a numerical and textual chart. For instance the man Victor is searching for is classified as "late-summer honey, warm tone, #76". Slaves are tattooed on the back of their necks with the logos of their owning plantation corporations. I was completely caught up in the story, barely able to put it down. A wonderful, disturbing, and important read.