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Chain-Gang All-Stars


Chain-Gang All-Stars

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut novel, CHAIN-GANG ALL-STARS, begins with a scene of brutal violence and emotional intensity, as two women fight to the death. The results, though, are not what anyone, including the (real-life) reader or the (fictional) viewing audience, might have expected going in. That’s the pattern that plays out a number of times throughout the novel, as moments of shocking savagery are interspersed with twists that stun on both a narrative and political level.

"CHAIN-GANG ALL-STARS offers a thrilling narrative and even a love story of sorts, but above all else, it’s a cautionary tale that calls out the barbarism of our own systems."

In the book’s all-too-near future, for-profit prisons have adopted a model reminiscent of death matches in the Roman coliseum, but much more high-tech. Combining the problem of overcrowded prisons with America’s lust for reality television, gadgetry and violence, vast corporations have set up a model whereby incarcerated people --- those whose sentences are 25 years or longer --- can sign up for the Criminal Action Penal Entertainment program (CAPE), which offers them freedom or clemency after successfully completing three years on the circuit. It seems like a fair exchange…but every single battle ends in death, so the odds of making it to the end of three years are miniscule, if not impossible.

However, after achieving one of the most shockingly unexpected victories in CAPE history --- and continuing to win --- Loretta Thurwar is on the verge of making it through. She’s earned the highest rank in the program, Colossal, and the woman she loves (who’s known as Hurricane Staxxx) is about to attain that same rank. The good news is that since they are “links” in the same “chain” (named after the Angola and Hammond prisons where they were originally incarcerated), they will never have to fight each other. But the rules of the game are constantly changing, and a shocking death on the Angola-Hammond chain starts to erode the trust among its members.

The stories of Thurwar and Hurricane Staxxx are interspersed with those of two men new to the circuit, as well as glimpses of audience members watching the matches and related programming at home, and protestors (many of them part of an organization called the Coalition to End Neo-Slavery) engaging in acts of civil disobedience as a means of calling out the brutality and hypocrisy of this system.

Initially, this fragmented narrative (whose characters and chronology come into focus only much later in the book) can feel disorienting, but Adjei-Brenyah’s propulsive pacing and dynamic prose will keep you going. What will cause you to pause are the sobering footnotes scattered throughout. Although some explain (sometimes in a tongue-in-cheek fashion) the technologies and corporations at the root of the CAPE program, most relate actual facts, figures, legal cases and names of people affected by our real-world system of mass incarceration. These footnotes, along with some of the statements made by characters, make it very clear just how scarily close our world is to the nightmarish one that Adjei-Brenyah has built.

CHAIN-GANG ALL-STARS offers a thrilling narrative and even a love story of sorts, but above all else, it’s a cautionary tale that calls out the barbarism of our own systems.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 12, 2023

Chain-Gang All-Stars
by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

  • Publication Date: January 23, 2024
  • Genres: Dystopian, Fiction, Satire
  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0593469313
  • ISBN-13: 9780593469316