Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
The author of the dystopian trilogy The Last Policeman takes a different approach to contemporary fiction: alternate history. The Civil War never happened, slavery is still legal in several southern states, and free does not mean equal. Victor is a free black man on assignment in Indianapolis for the U.S. Marshals Service, on the trail of a runaway bonded person known as Jackdaw. Victor infiltrates a cell of the underground airline, a master of disguise. In flashbacks, we learn that Victor spent his childhood as a bonded person, so why is he tracking down runaways now? Is it just that he enjoys the privileges of his job and situation, from air-conditioning to a car to the music of Michael Jackson? And yet he befriends Martha Flowers, a young white woman with a biracial son. As Victor travels between free and slave states, the world is a fascinating one, as the economy doesn’t seem to be thriving and technology lags behind ours. Laptops, cell phones, and GPS exist, but most cars are older and foreign. This novel is not light reading, but the world-building and storytelling skills of Winters make this book very hard to put down.
Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
I’ve read only a few steampunk novels, but I really enjoyed this fast-paced steampunk adventure. It’s set in an alternate 1878, in Rapid City, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, complete with airships and mechanical marvels. Karen Memory finds the best job available to her after her father’s death, and works as a “seamstress” at the Hotel Mon Cherie, run by Madame Damnable. Karen really is a seamstress on the side, but the hotel is a respectable bordello. The ladies gather in the parlor for a meal after their guests leave, and are surprised when Merry Lee shows up, badly wounded while rescuing Priya. Priya and her younger sister came from India for work, only to be trapped by powerful bully Peter Bantle, who wants to be the next mayor. Karen falls hard for the brilliant Priya, and wants to rescue her sister. Next Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves rides into town looking for a killer, and Madame Damnable’s girls volunteer to help along with Merry Lee, hoping the trail leads back to Peter Bantle. Lots of action and adventure in a very unusual setting, with an appealing narrator in Karen.
11/22/63, by Stephen King
If you’re intrigued by time travel, mysteries, romance, and alternate histories, then 11/22/63 is the book for you. Although this book is anything but a short story, you’ll find yourself unable to put it down until the last page. I found it to be one of his best works to date and proof that King continues to be a great storyteller.
The story begins in 2011, when Jake Epping, an English teacher from Lisbon Falls, Maine, reads an essay from one of his students, Harry Dunning. It’s about the time decades earlier when his father killed his family and injured Harry.
As the story progresses, Jake’s friend Al, who runs the local diner, describes how he has discovered a time portal to 1958 in his storeroom. Al has been traveling back in time regularly to buy inexpensive hamburger for his diner and plot Lee Harvey Oswald’s whereabouts. He is planning to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy when he is diagnosed with lung cancer.
Al eventually persuades Jake to take his place as the time traveler who will stop Oswald from assassinating Kennedy. This is where the story really begins because saving Kennedy is only one of the book’s interconnected storylines. Jake’s first test is to go back in time to save Harry Dunning’s family from being murdered. Jake goes through the portal to 11:58 a.m., Sept. 9, 1958 – the portal always drops a person at this exact time and date. After partially succeeding in his mission and learning from his time travelling mistakes, he returns to the present, then goes back to try to save Kennedy. He must live several years in the past, until Nov. 22, 1963 when he can attempt to save the President. Jake becomes George Amberson (an identity provided to him by Al), moves to Jodi, Texas, teaches high school, falls in love, and tracks down Oswald.
There are numerous questions that you will have to read the book to have answered. Will Jake prevent Kennedy’s assassination? If so, how will it change the course of history? Will Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. be imperiled? What about the Race Riots and Vietnam? How will Jake’s personal life be affected by his stepping back into history?
Throughout the book Jake learns that the past and the future are connected in some very unexpected ways … and changing the past is not always as easy as you’d think.