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.