Smart and well paced. The story could use a little fine-tuning, but it moves deftly from a terrific premise and builds to a...

UNDERGROUND AIRLINES

Imagine: there was no Civil War, and the Confederacy has morphed into a low-tech Matrix. That’s the territory that Winters (The Last Policeman, 2012, etc.) explores in this memorable tale.

It’s a scenario worthy of Philip K. Dick: the U.S. is still part-slave, part-free, with the “Hard Four” states—a unified North and South Carolina foremost among them—clinging resolutely to the old ways even as those pesky moralists the Europeans “draw no distinction between the slavery-practicing states and the slavery-tolerating ones” and as right-thinking Northerners figure out ways to resist the modern equivalent of the Fugitive Slave Act. Winters probes the possibilities: outside the Hard Four, who benefits from the trade in human flesh? Where do new slaves come from, now that transcontinental traffic is banned? How deeply can his antiheroic hero, a manumitted slave–turned–bounty hunter currently calling himself Victor, participate in the system without being forever stained? He has his motives, understandable if not noble, that send him careening into other people’s self-interests; he’s on the hunt for a runaway named Jackdaw who may have hopped a plane for China with a pile of Southern T-shirts—or who may instead have made his way to someplace relatively safe, like Indianapolis. For the most part, Winters neatly blends dystopian fiction with old-fashioned procedural. The story gets a little wobbly toward the end, with Boys from Brazil undertones more befitting sci-fi, a genre in which Winters has also worked. Readers with a strong attachment to verisimilitude may balk at the strange turn, but in the end, the twist makes good sense. If it lacks all the dramatic punch it might have had—the storyline hesitates at a couple of key moments, just when Victor is making his most disturbing discoveries—Winters’ yarn still works.

Smart and well paced. The story could use a little fine-tuning, but it moves deftly from a terrific premise and builds to a satisfying conclusion.

Pub Date: July 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-316-26124-1

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Mulholland Books/Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: April 12, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

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DEVOLUTION

Are we not men? We are—well, ask Bigfoot, as Brooks does in this delightful yarn, following on his bestseller World War Z (2006).

A zombie apocalypse is one thing. A volcanic eruption is quite another, for, as the journalist who does a framing voice-over narration for Brooks’ latest puts it, when Mount Rainier popped its cork, “it was the psychological aspect, the hyperbole-fueled hysteria that had ended up killing the most people.” Maybe, but the sasquatches whom the volcano displaced contributed to the statistics, too, if only out of self-defense. Brooks places the epicenter of the Bigfoot war in a high-tech hideaway populated by the kind of people you might find in a Jurassic Park franchise: the schmo who doesn’t know how to do much of anything but tries anyway, the well-intentioned bleeding heart, the know-it-all intellectual who turns out to know the wrong things, the immigrant with a tough backstory and an instinct for survival. Indeed, the novel does double duty as a survival manual, packed full of good advice—for instance, try not to get wounded, for “injury turns you from a giver to a taker. Taking up our resources, our time to care for you.” Brooks presents a case for making room for Bigfoot in the world while peppering his narrative with timely social criticism about bad behavior on the human side of the conflict: The explosion of Rainier might have been better forecast had the president not slashed the budget of the U.S. Geological Survey, leading to “immediate suspension of the National Volcano Early Warning System,” and there’s always someone around looking to monetize the natural disaster and the sasquatch-y onslaught that follows. Brooks is a pro at building suspense even if it plays out in some rather spectacularly yucky episodes, one involving a short spear that takes its name from “the sucking sound of pulling it out of the dead man’s heart and lungs.” Grossness aside, it puts you right there on the scene.

A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

Pub Date: June 16, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-2678-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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Assembly-line legal thriller: flat characters, lame scene-setting, and short but somehow interminable action: a lifeless...

SPLIT SECOND

Two defrocked Secret Service Agents investigate the assassination of one presidential candidate and the kidnapping of another.

Baldacci (The Christmas Train, 2002, etc.) sets out with two plot strands. The first begins when something distracts Secret Service Agent Sean King and during that “split second,” presidential candidate Clyde Ritter is shot dead. King takes out the killer, but that’s not enough to save his reputation with the Secret Service. He retires and goes on to do often tedious but nonetheless always lucrative work (much like a legal thriller such as this) at a law practice. Plot two begins eight years later when another Secret Service Agent, Michelle Maxwell, lets presidential candidate John Bruno out of her sight for a few minutes at a wake for one of his close associates. He goes missing. Now Maxwell, too, gets in dutch with the SS. Though separated by time, the cases are similar and leave several questions unanswered. What distracted King at the rally? Bruno had claimed his friend’s widow called him to the funeral home. The widow (one of the few characters here to have any life) says she never called Bruno. Who set him up? Who did a chambermaid at Ritter’s hotel blackmail? And who is the man in the Buick shadowing King’s and Maxwell’s every move? King is a handsome, rich divorce, Maxwell an attractive marathon runner. Will they join forces and find each other kind of, well, appealing? But of course. The two former agents traverse the countryside, spinning endless hypotheses before the onset, at last, of a jerrybuilt conclusion that begs credibility and offers few surprises.

Assembly-line legal thriller: flat characters, lame scene-setting, and short but somehow interminable action: a lifeless concoction.

Pub Date: Sept. 30, 2003

ISBN: 0-446-53089-1

Page Count: 406

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2003

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