hp: hermione fifty points

Two Alternate History Novels

Underground Airlines by Ben Winters
What if slavery still existed in 2017? This is the premise for a chilling alternative history novel. Imagine that the Civil War never happened. Instead, Congress ratified the Crittenden Amendments, which promised that the South could keep slavery forever. Now, Persons Bound to Labor toil in factories, mines, and plantations in the Hard Four, the Southern states that continue to allow slavery. The main character is a “soul catcher,” a black man who maintains his freedom by hunting escaped slaves in the North. He believes he’s a good man making a living in a hard world, until one strange case forces him to face his past and reimagine his future. The author creates a hauntingly plausible world in which he imagines both the tiniest details of industrialized slavery and the larger implications for US foreign policy. Yet what really makes the book shine is the distinctive voice of the narrator, a hardboiled noir detective who can’t quite stop yearning for a better life.

When I got to the end of the book, I discovered that the author is white, and I’m not quite sure what to do with that fact. On the one hand, the narrator’s POV viscerally showcases racial privilege by forcing us to recognize that many of the abuses in this fictional slave state exist in our real world today. On the other hand, why is yet another white dude getting rich selling the story of slavery?

The Book of Esther by Emily Barton
Hundreds of years ago, a Jewish warrior kingdom called Khazaria existed in the modern-day Caucasus region. Emily Barton takes this as a jumping off point for her alternate history novel. What if the Khazar Kingdom still existed at the time of Hitler’s rise to power? What kind of military technology would they have, and how would they meet the threat? The main character, Esther, is the daughter of an important government official, and she yearns to fight. There’s just one problem: she’s a woman, and Orthodox Judaism places strict limitations on what she’s allowed to do. As a world-building exercise, this novel earns five stars. The fusion of medieval and modern Jewish customs is fascinating. The language, the religion, and culture were so vivid I dreamed about them. Unfortunately, a truly compelling novel also needs other things. Like a plot. Once the sparkle of the worldbuilding wears off, reading the book gets to be kind of a slog, and the cliffhanger ending doesn’t really resolve anything.
the author is white, and I’m not quite sure what to do with that fact

I have a problem with that too. In general, I think people go very far (sometimes too far) accusing things of being cultural appropriation, but in that specific case, I don't see how it's okay for a white man to write a book where slavery is still a thing.
Thanks for posting about these--they weren't on my radar and sound fascinating!!!!
I have 'Underground Airlines' on my list of to-reads, it got a lot of press when it came out. **Googles** and apparently the author is from Maryland, interesting...

It looks like he tends to write sci-fi/alternate universe kind of stories. I can see how he would stumble upon the idea of slavery never being outlawed. I don't think you should discount his writing and work just because he is a white guy, I mean, it sounds like he wrote a good book. Doesn't sound like he was using it as a platform to say "Hey, see, slavery wasn't that bad!" which would be more concerning. But, yeah, it makes you wonder if an African-American author had pitched the same book idea if anyone would have picked it up. But if the book was well written and well done, he deserves the thumbs up for his writing.

Though it is foolish for reviewers to claim he is breaking any new ground, which, apparently, they did. It's science fiction and it does what good sci-fi does, takes something happening today and throwing it to an extreme to play with the reality of it all.
Unfortunately, a truly compelling novel also needs other things. Like a plot.

Fuck, you had me until then! I hate when books fall into that trap.
I've had The Book of Esther on my to-read list for a while. I may need to bump it up...
I absolutely loved-*loved*-LOVED Ben Winters' Last Policeman Trilogy. It's an interesting examination of what happens when the end of the world is imminent, wrapped in the cloak of noir fiction. If you enjoyed the writing of Underground Airlines, definitely check out the Last Policeman books.

Also, Underground Airlines came out at nearly the same time as Coulson Whitehead's Underground Railroad, which I haven't read yet, but it won the National Book Award and was actually written by a black man.