Book Review – The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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Title: The Underground Railroad
Author: Colson Whitehead
Publisher: Doubleday
Genre: Historical fiction, Alternate history, #OwnVoices

Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Underground Railroad, is, I dare to say it, a masterpiece. Despite the detached tone that turns off a few readers, the author gets to the heart of the horrible truths surrounding American chattel slavery in a way that most historical works have not. In addition to Alex Haley’s Roots, which comes with its fair share of controversy, Underground Railroad is one of the most powerful novels about slavery that I have ever read.

In Underground Railroad, we begin with a fairly straightforward story on a slave plantation. Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia; she is also a stray and outcast amongst her fellow people. When Caesar, a slave relatively new to the Randall plantation, convinces her to run with him, she eventually agrees, and they both make their escape.

It is here, on page 66, that the story takes a turn into the realm of alternative history. For the Underground Railroad is not the version we find in our history books, but a real train line, built by slaves, buried deep underground.

The stairwell was lined with stones and a sour smell emanated from below. It did not open into a cellar but continued down. Cora appreciated the labor that had gone into its construction. The steps were steep, but the stones aligned in even planes and provided an easy descent. Then they reached the tunnel, and appreciation became too mealy a word to contain what lay before her.

The stairs led onto a small platform. The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light-colored stones in an alternating pattern. The sheer industry that had made such a project possible. Cora and Caesar noticed the rails. Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden crossties. The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus. Someone had been thoughtful enough to arrange a small bench on the platform. Cora felt dizzy and sat down.

Caesar could scarcely speak. “How far does the tunnel extend?”

Lumbly shrugged. “Far enough for you.”

“It must have taken years.”

“More than you know. Solving the problem of ventilation, that took a bit of time.”

“Who built it?”

“Who builds anything in this country?”

Throughout the novel, Colson borrows from history to reveal the true heart of darkness: slavery and the ongoing systemic racism in America. As Cora moves through each state: Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Colson begins to tell a broader story. South Carolina is completely reinvented – I won’t go into too much detail to avoid spoilers – but it is definitely jarring, and brings together the pseudosciences of eugenics, forced sterilization, and the Tuskegee Syphilis Project. All is not as it appears, and what looks shiny and promising on the outside often hides a darker, menacing aspect within.

Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood. With the surgeries that Dr. Stevens described, Cora thought, the whites had begun stealing futures in earnest. Cut you open and rip them out, dripping. Because that’s what you do when you take away someone’s babies – steal their future. Torture them as much as you can when they are on this earth, then take away the hope that one day their people will have it better.

I definitely see why this novel won the National Book Award. Colson Whitehead not only shows the struggles African-Americans have experienced during chattel slavery and beyond; he also touches on the way that white folks, and not just antebellum Southerners, justified their mistaken belief in racial superiority.

Interspersed throughout the story are chapters featuring a few of the minor characters: Caesar, Ridgeway, Dr. Stevens, Ethel. Some peopel take issue with these chapters as unnecessary, but I really appreciated them, particularly the chapters about Ridgeway and Caesar.

Whitehead writes in a detached way, and I know that is a turn-off for some people. I really enjoyed his writing style, and definitely recommend you give it a chance! In my opinon, it deserves all the accolades it has received.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

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Book Review – Gilded Cage by Vic James

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Title: Gilded Cage

Author: Vic James

Publisher: Del Ray Books

Release Date: February 14, 2017 (a lovey-dovey Valentine’s Day book, this is not!)

Genre: YA Fantasy, dystopia, alternate history

 

 

 

 

 

Book Blurb:

Not all are free. Not all are equal. Not all will be saved.

Our world belongs to the Equals — aristocrats with magical gifts — and all commoners must serve them for ten years. But behind the gates of England’s grandest estate lies a power that could break the world.

A girl thirsts for love and knowledge.

Abi is a servant to England’s most powerful family, but her spirit is free. So when she falls for one of the noble-born sons, Abi faces a terrible choice. Uncovering the family’s secrets might win her liberty, but will her heart pay the price?

A boy dreams of revolution.

Abi’s brother, Luke, is enslaved in a brutal factory town. Far from his family and cruelly oppressed, he makes friends whose ideals could cost him everything. Now Luke has discovered there may be a power even greater than magic: revolution.

And an aristocrat will remake the world with his dark gifts.

He is a shadow in the glittering world of the Equals, with mysterious powers no one else understands. But will he liberate—or destroy?

*This ARC was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Wow. What Gilded Cage turned out to be when I started reading is not what I expected! That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as I truly enjoyed this novel.

Gilded Cage takes place in an alternate England. A world in which power is often determined by whether or not you possess Skill (i.e. Magic). In this slightly dystopian England, the aristocrats are not descended from royalty, but gifted with Skill, and are known as Equals. Everyone else is deemed commoners, and must submit themselves to a decade-long period of slavery at some point during their lives.

The story primarily follows the young-adult aged children in two families. Luke and Abi, whose whole family has just started serving their slavedays. And the Equals: Heir Gavar, his unskilled brother Jenner, and mysterious Silyen. Gavar, Silyen and Jenner are part of the Parva-Jardine family. The Jardines are one of the most powerful families in England, and most of Abi’s family has been sent to their estate, Kyneston, to serve as slaves in the household.

All except Luke. Luke is separated from his parents and sisters at the beginning of the novel to serve his slavedays in Millmoor, one of the slavetowns. Millmoor is absolutely horrendous, with deplorable conditions, inadequate shelter and food, and excruciatingly long workdays.

Chapters alternate between the POV of Abi, Luke, Gavar, Silyen, and Bouda Matravers – Gavar’s fiancée.

What I liked:

  • It’s dark and mysterious. Chattel slavery in a modern setting? Pulling ten-year olds and teenagers out of school to do their slave days? A sprawling estate in the British countryside with a mysterious son who wields extraordinary magical powers? Yep…Gilded Cage definitely set the right tone for a dark and delicious storyline.
  • Silyen. Silyen, the youngest Jardine son and wielder of extraordinary powers. The extent of his powers remain unknown throughout much of the novel, and I loved the suspense of finding out just what he can do, and what his motives truly are.
  • Nuance. Thank you, thank you, Vic James for giving your characters nuance and subtlety. There is unflinching cruelty, and lovely acts of kindness…and sometimes the cruelty and kindness come from the same person. Morality, and doing something kind for the wrong reasons (or vice-versa), is definitely a theme in Gilded Cage worthy of analysis.
  • Millmoor’s version of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men. Parts of the novel feel as if it takes place in the 19th century. And then you have the Millmoor revolutionaries: hackers and tech geniuses. Awesome-sauce!
  • Multiple points of view. The best parts of the novel, in my opinion, were the POV from Abi, Luke and Silyen.

What I didn’t like:

  • Multiple points of view. Yes, I have this in both categories. It worked really well in some ways, and not so much in others. There were too many, and I felt like Bouda’s especially, was too much.
  • The only time swearing was used was when a guy was calling a strong, powerful woman a bitch. This really bothered me. I don’t mind when there is a lot of swearing in novels, in fact, I have a bit of a sailor’s mouth myself. And the majority of the “bitching” came from Gavar, who could definitely be a sexist jerk on a regular basis. Many of the women in the novel: Bouda, Hypatia, the Overseer of Millmoor, are not very likable characters. And here are some of the words used to describe them: Overbitch, bitch-queen fiancée, harpy like Bouda, and sanctimonious old biddy. That last one is in reference to Armeria Tresco, one of the few Equals with abolitionist tendencies. Okay, Gavar is a sexist jerk, as are some of the other men. But why isn’t it called out by any of the other characters? Or even acknowledged, anywhere? Did Vic James realize how this can sound to a reader? It really did not sit well with me at all, and is one of the main reasons why the novel does not get a 4-star review from me.
  • In the same vein, only two characters were people of color, and one of them was actually referred to as looking like a thug at one point. The poor guy is beat up to the point that he is unrecognizable, yet he is described as having a “thuggish aspect”. Seriously? In a novel about slavery and oppression? Not cool.

Would I recommend Gilded Cage? Yes, especially if you are a fan of dystopias and alternate histories. However, the above negatives make this a hesitant recommendation, instead of a “go out and read this now!!” review.

Rating: 3/5 stars