Chain Gang All Stars is a dystopian take on the American prison system set in the near future where inmates accused of heinous crimes are all but conscripted into a new version of Roman gladiatorship. These modern-day gladiators are treated better than their counterparts, in isolation and squandered, and are marketed much like Reality TV and Sports stars of today, but may come at the cost of a televised possible death.
Told from various viewpoints of members of different chain gangs, those that oppose, and those that helped create this new system, Chain Gang is mostly centered around the relationship of two members of the same chain: Loretta Thurwar and Hamara "Hurricane Staxxx" Stacker who learns that once they reach the level of "Colossal' they must now fight each other to the death in the new season.
Adjei-Brenyah's detail to all things in Chain Gang All Stars is a feat within itself. I applaud his use of footnotes and tying in the current climate of the prison pipeline, police brutality, and mass incarceration to his work. I do wish the story was a little tighter in some detail, but this could've been because I read the ARC.
A gut-punch of a book, Chain Gang All-Stars is most startling in it's proximity to today's prison system in the US. Although some storylines were left hanging, the quality of the writing and the positioning as the reader as complicit in the prisoners-as-entertainment dynamic, this novel is an absolute must-read. Really looking forward to more novels from Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.
This was an interesting read. I was very invested in seeing how the narrative unfolded, with the multiple perspectives, and its firm stance on prison abolition and the harms of the prison system. This book starts so many conversations and show how they're all intertwined. I did struggle to get into this book, but I do believe upon a re-read, I will gain more from it. This is a very important book that I think will be talked about for many generations.
Rating: 3.5 stars
I agree with a lot of other reviews: this book was ambitious, almost to a fault, but had a lot of great aspects. It was really hard to read for about 95% of the story, but I do think it holds important messages on the US penal system and forces you to ask uncomfortable questions. Overall it was compelling, but I can see how it won't be for everyone.
I loved the premise of the book. Adjei-Brenyah recreated a futuristic version of a Gladiator-styled Hunger Games prison system, featuring a chainlink of people trying to survive and make it out to freedom. But it became too much after one too many points of view, political persuasions, and multiple footnotes that were either historical, current news, or background information on fictional characters. I honestly should have DNFed. I stuck it out for the conclusion, but it wasn’t satisfying enough to care for the book as I did initially. I’m not saying I disliked the story; it was just … busy.
Really enjoyed the idea of this, but unfortunately the execution didn’t really pull me in. I felt a bit lost with the characters and world building and once I put it down I no longer wanted to pick it up. A DNF for me.
In a terrifying view of what the American prison system could one day become, this story follows Chains as they willingly fight one another, with their own lives on the line. I think I have an unpopular opinion on this one… it felt hard to follow both emotionally but also literally. The message about the penal system and use of force is certainly important, but felt overshadowed by the “hunger games”-like fantasy of it all.
Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is a phenomenal novel and was one of my favorite reads of 2023. It's a staggering work of literary merit and should be required reading. I imagine it will be for many.
Many thanks to the author, publisher, and NetGalley for sharing this book with me. All thoughts are my own.
While "Chain Gang All Stars" by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah showcases creative storytelling and thought-provoking concepts, the execution at times feels uneven, leaving some stories more impactful than others. The collection lacks a consistent depth that might have elevated it to a more compelling read. This story would’ve been better broken up into short stories. There were too many characters for my liking.
I received a digital ARC of this book from Netgalley.
Devastating. That's really the only way to describe this book. Utterly emotionally devastating.
Let's see if I can't be more specific. You know the comic Bitch Planet, by Kelly Sue DeConnick? If you don't, you should absolutely read it (and also Ms. DeConnick, please finish the series). Anyway, in Bitch Planet, non-compliant women are sent to a prison planet where they're forced to compete in violent sports for the amusement of a degenerate and broken world. So this book is like that, except it's not a prison planet, it's right here on Earth. And instead of violent team sports, it's prisoner on prisoner death matches. Oh, and the book doesn't let you separate yourself from the violence and horror, instead continuously reminding you of how close the current world, with
its barbarism and inhumanity of the current carceral system, already is to this fictional future.
The book follows a lot of characters, some of them for only a single chapter, some throughout the entire novel. Our main protagonist is Loretta Thurwar, a fighter on the Chain-Gang who's only a couple more fights away from freedom. Loretta has done the best she can to find a bit of peace in her brutal world, falling in love with her teammate Hamara "Hurricane Staxxx" Stacker. Loretta does her best to turn her team into something like a family, sharing food and supplies and forbidding them to kill each other. But Loretta's going to be free soon, and she doesn't know if any of her changes will persist. Everyone on the Chain-Gang is broken, and their struggle to retain their humanity is deeply affecting.
Chain-Gang All-Stars is brutal, beautiful, heartbreaking, and maybe hopeful. I cried, and while I cry when reading all the time, this book seems to have struck a bit deeper than usual, as I'm close to crying again while writing this. Read it.
Vibes: Bitch Planet, Black AF History by Michael Harriot, a dash of N.K. Jemisin, a pinch of Margaret Killjoy.
A phenomenal and engaging read... And equally heartbreaking in its essence.
Many thanks to the publisher and netgalley. I really enjoyed this.
Wildly fun exploitation storytelling balanced deftly with a seering examination of the carceral state we are careening towards. Addictively fun and deceptively unsettling.
A stunning exploration what could be America’s prison system - Chain Gang All-Stars is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is one of the most promising writers of our generation and I will ready anything he writes.
Friday Black, Adjei-Brenyah's debut collection, quickly established itself as a classic of the form. Its stories were a pitch-perfect blend of political and social realism with just-around-the-corner speculation, told with jet-black humor and a keen awareness of the centrality of racism in American culture. His follow-up novel feels, for better and worse, like an expansion of one of those stories. In the near future it imagines, the (mostly privatized) American prison system has come up with a novel moneymaking venture, recruiting prisoners into a death match league that is part Hunger Games, part WWF, which has quickly become America's most popular sport.
Adjei-Brenyah's most impressive achievement in Chain-Gang All-Stars is the meticulousness with which he constructs the CAPE (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment) program, from elements both familiar—much of the money generated by the program comes from a 24/7 broadcast that follows the prisoners on their down time, creating a reality TV-like obsession with their lives and relationships—and SFnal—subdermal implants that magnetically lock the prisoners' hands together, restrict their movements to a certain perimeter, and even enforce silence with threats of electric shocks. Absurdist details like a wheel of fortune with which newcomers to the program select a weapon for their inaugural match, which can be as useful as a wrench or as pointless as a spoon (the few who survive can earn "blood points" for subsequent wins with which to buy weapons, armor, and amenities) sit side by side with bleakly plausible ones, such as a promotional appearance at a farmer's market where hardened criminals, now celebrities, hawk ice cream and artisanal cheese. High camp touches such as fighters giving their weapons monikers like Hass Omaha and LoveGuile recall the theatrical origins of the premise while situating it in a horrifying reality. The novel even steps outside the arena when it follows a woman who has been introduced to the sport by her husband, who becomes obsessed with the soap opera of a particular "chain"—as groups of fighters imprisoned in a particular private prison system are known—and whose marriage is revitalized by this newfound shared interest.
At the same time, Adjei-Brenyah is upfront and unapologetic about the fact that Chain-Gang All-Stars is an anti-carceral polemic. The story is littered with footnotes that elaborate on the real-life injustices of the American prison system, of which the novel's reality is often but a minor enhancement. Some chapters dwell on present day abuses such as violence by prison guards, the prevalence of people of color among CAPE participants, or a harrowing glimpse of the psychological effects of long-term solitary confinement. There is no sentimentality here about the kinds of people who end up joining CAPE. While one or two are innocent, and quite a few are victims of circumstances, over-prosecution, and a myriad failures of the welfare and education systems, there are also prisoners in the program who have committed horrific, inexcusable crimes. An activist against CAPE even muses that she does not want her incarcerated father to be released. But—beyond the irony of locking people away for one kind of murder and then lionizing them for committing another—the novel is clear that the abuses and cruelty of even the existing system can't be justified, a point which it makes with bracing directness.
What this all adds up to, however, is that Chain-Gang All-Stars ends up feeling more like an act of worldbuilding than a story. There is a plot to the novel, focusing on a particular chain and its members—leader Loretta Thurwar, her lover Hamara "Hurricane Staxxx" Stacker, their lingering grief over the unexplained death of the chain's previous leader Sunset Harkless (violence between chain members is expected and encouraged, but Sunset had imposed a more benevolent rule, which his death threatens to shatter), and the discovery, by Thurwar, who is on the verge of completing her three-year stint and earning freedom, that a rules change will compel her to fight Staxxx. But these are all fairly shopworn plot points, and Adjei-Brenyah's creative energies seem to have been directed somewhere other than breathing life and individuality into them.
There's a curiously inert quality to Chain-Gang All-Stars, which ends up feeling more like a series of expository scenes than a novel. To an extent, this may be deliberate—imprisonment is an inherently static condition, and a plot that gave its characters too much agency might have undercut the novel's message—but the result is that, despite the feats of invention and the real-life resonances that make Chain-Gang All-Stars so special, it is seldom gripping. The question of whether Thurwar and Staxx will be able to hold on to their humanity in a dehumanizing system, allegedly the crux of the novel, ends up fading besides Adjei-Brenyah's focus on that system. That's perhaps as it should be given the novel's laudable, controversial aims, but it makes Chain-Gang All-Stars something to admire rather than love.
Criminal Action Penal Entertainment, or C.A.P.E., doesn't feel satirical. It feels nauseatingly predictive. This first novel, by the author of the excellent story collection <I>Black Friday</i> (my all-but five star review at the link), is a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in presented in less than a week's time.
The horrors of imprisonment aren't new. Neither is it news that African-Americans are disproportionately affected by those horrors. The horrible prevalence of carceral solutions to minor infractions started their rise with the ludicrous "War on Drugs" that was utterly ineffective at its stated goal, but gigantically successful at creating inmates for an increasingly corporatized and profit-driven prison system.
This novel's a shout of outrage, a howl of fury and grief, a klaxon of warning about this facet of the dehumanizing and victimizing of people of color by the racist system of "justice" in place in the US. It's equally effective as an anti-capitalist bellow of rage at the unchecked quest for profit above all other goals that is doing so much to actively destroy the planet's biosphere...that we all live in...with its greed.
We start our visit to a barely-fictionalized present-day US with a violent scene of battle brought to us by the CAPE (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment) program. Take a moment, please, to view this acronym. Look at the cultural tie-backs; the superhero comic-book culture polluting my screens for a decade now gets a brickbat right away, as does the Orwellian alphabet soup so prevalent in modern governmental bowls of gruel served to the needy (SNAP, WIC, AFDC and the like). This is Author Adjei-Brenyah's most well-honed talent: In <I>Friday Black</i>, he invented the slang term "shoelookers" for socially awkward teens unable or unwilling to meet their peers' or anyone else's gaze. This is a writer with an excellent ear serving a flensing-knife of an eye. Nothing in this read has any less sharp a perception or a usage case behind it. That is probably the most discomfiting thing about the novel: As I admired his wordsmithery, I realize the point of the red-hot blade he was forging was aimed squarely at me. Old white man, privileged and pampered by a system designed to coddle and comfort me. Well. That's me told.
So it is...and most of y'all, too. You won't necessarily like this part of your reading experience, if my own is any guide; I don't think it should, in your minds, present an excuse for you not to make the effort to read it. If the world has justice in its sharing-out of cultural kudos, this novel will win the National Book Award for Fiction in a few days' time. The reason I want it to is that it shouts the quiet part out loud in a cultural landscape of politely, passively sleepwalking into a new authoritarian era of unspeakable, horrifying intentions. The people trying to gain control of the world aren't troubling to hide their intentions, either, except to say blandly homogenized inoffensive acronymic things...or exactly what Author Adjei-Brenyah is warning us about so very effectively in <I>Chain-Gang All-Stars</i>.
If I'm honest, that is also a problem with the read. It is a warning. A story that, while I believe in its worldbuilding, is still meant to tell me something uncomfortable about my world. Historically, awards aren't always willing to put their celebratory wreaths on creative projects that poke people hard in their painful spots. I very much don't want that to be the case for <I>Chain-Gang All-Stars</i>, but it could easily lose the public lauding that the National Book Award for Fiction represents just based on what juries often refer to as "controversial ideas." I want all y'all to go get the book and engage with it on the intellectual level; the carrot to that perceived stick is a story that could easily be a superb action flick, unremittingly violent and all with genuinely elevated stakes...no one could ever fight for their literal life and have it be mellow. Reading the story on that level is exciting, as it is when you read the Reacher books that fly off the shelves. That's not my reading sweet spot. I look at it, frankly, as the cheese wrapped around the pill that you need to get down the dog's throat.
If I'm committed to that metaphor, I will say it's a bit like using Roquefort for the purpose. Rich, creamy, power-packed flavorsome stuff. Rare and expensive (in lost illusions). Hard to find the real, genuinely, ethically sourced stuff.
Here it is.
This book is powerful. I wasn't sure what I was expecting, but I got so much more than I could have hoped for with this book! That sentence probably doesn't make sense, but to me, it does.
The book is about prisoners who travel in the Chain Gangs and are referred to as links. Two women gladiators, who are the all-star fights, fight for their freedom after they have been incarcerated. They will fight to the death for their freedom.
This book broke my heart. A prisoner had a phone call with their parents, which made me think of the phone calls prisioners make to their moms. As a mom, I couldn't imagine waiting to hear from my child like the mother in the book had to do. Reading about the prisoners working together to try to change the system from the inside was heartbreaking. This book was bloody and emotional.
I finished this book in September, and I still can't put together a proper review. I have so many emotions and thoughts that I'm unable to put down into words.
If this is a book that caught your attention, then you definitely need to read it!!
Chain-Gang All Stars was an excellent read and I can see why it's on so many book award lists. I loved the excitement of the fighting but also the clear critique of the prison industrial complex. I think the fiction pointed out all the horrors of real life prison even more.
A truly ambitious novel tackling the prison system and injustices surrounding the Black community. Really strong world and system building can be seen throughout the text, but I feel like it muddles the story's theme sometimes. It feels a little contradictory to be fighting the injustice in a dystopian/must die setting. I really liked our main characters, but felt like the amount of characters was a little overwhelming. I enjoyed the book, but felt like it mixed too many elements at once.
Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker are the top women gladiators for Chain-Gang All-Stars, part of Criminal Action Penal Entertainment (CAPE), an extremely popular (and controversial) fundraising program in America. In CAPE, these prisoners travel around and compete in death matches for packed arenas of spectators. Thurwar and Staxxx are fan favorites - and also lovers - and Thurwar has only a few more matches before she is a free woman. As she struggles to figure out how to help her fellow captives retain their humanity, the powerful corporate owners of CAPE do everything they can to thwart her attempts.
When this horrific satire works, it works. It’s acerbic and timely, and there are moments where it feels so close to the the world in which we actually live that it’s physically uncomfortable (which is the point). In lesser hands, the novel’s premise would feel outlandish, in Adjei-Brenyah’s, the opposite is true: it feels all to plausible. The writing is powerful, the action sequences absolutely riveting, and the world-building immaculate. I wish I hadn’t listened to this as an audiobook - in addition to utilizing a lot of footnotes, the cast of characters is sprawling and my brain would have benefitted from seeing the words on the page - but it’s still an incredible piece of art and criticism. I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing an advance copy of this title in exchange for honest feedback. A truly incredible novel. Challenging to read, but should be required of everyone