Member Reviews

I thought this book was amazing. The author takes the current US prison system situation and combines it with gladiator style arena fighting. It's like The Hunger Games mixed with Survivor and US death row inmates. It's brutal, but that's sort of the point. I'm not going to give away all of the plot points, but my absolute favorite thing was actually the real statistics that the author added in as footnotes in order to make his point. Everyone likes numbers and statistics. Just kidding. I love those things. But I promise that if you don't it doesn't distract from the narrative in any way. Because footnotes.

I highly recommend this. It was on my radar since Roxane Gay picked it for her book club. I am interested in reading his short story collection.

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Bloody hell!! What a ride! Obviously a social commentary but my God incredibly well written!! These are some badass women and the manner in which they have to survive is brutal!!! A not so far off future because I refuse to believe this cant happen when well umm!! A strong and solid debut

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A fascinating and disturbing premise (which, unfortunately, doesn’t feel too far-fetched) told with grit and dark humor. Unsettling but thought-provoking.

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Chain Gang All Stars is dystopian look at the prison system. In this book prison life has turned into a blood sport that's broadcast on major networks. This story is truly disturbing in that the country has embraced a "fight to the death" mentality for individuals incarcerated and we watch it like a football game.

My rating has nothing to do with the story but rather this book was NOT for me. This contains a vast cast of characters, often challenging to track in the storyline. This read is also incredibly brutal and violent. It is truly a mix of the Hunger Games books and the movie Gladiator.

The footnotes scatted throughout the chapters distracted from the reading - not sure why they were needed during the read and not in the authors notes.

Thank you Knopf, Pantheon, for the complimentary copy.

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My closest encounter with active-sports is me as a young, skinny, flamboyant boy cartwheeling over meticulously linked rubber-band chains as mother, leading my team in Chinese-garter to victory. Dead mother, dead all!

Chain Gang All-Stars is multitude leaps on a different level. Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah paints America’s incarceration system to have become an ubiquitous reality entertainment amassing fans from all walks of life. Chain Gang All-Stars pits willing prisoners to the death, forgoing their sentence, for a stab at freedom. While at it, the players are donned celebrity status, gaining support from sponsors and devotees as their fights and downtime shenanigans are streamed in households. Brewing in the sidelines, protests from abolitioners gain traction.

Think Hunger Games x Gladiator x Big Brother. We follow fighters called Links as they earn kills and rank up from a Rookie, to the pinnacle of Grand Colossal, and finally the most coveted High Freed. Each Links are assigned a Chain, a sort of a team, based on facilities they originate from. The current most popular being Angola-Hammond (A-Hamm) where lady front-runners and lovers, Thurwar and Hurricane Staxxx, hail from. Readers are dropped to front seats to witness Links let blood bloom and also observe how their gears work outside the arena. It’s an all out money-shoveling industry catered through paid live viewing, streaming subscriptions, fan service, and merchandise. Name it and you’ll have it.

This novel champions electric fight sequences, impressive world building, and thoughtful real-talk. Despite its fantastical entourage, Adjei-Brenyah employs a satirical flair exposing the dark underbelly of a depraved penal system. The participation of powers in the hand of enforcing institutions, corporations, media, and the justice system is skillfully depicted as they all influence the game and all stakeholders.

From the author’s note, Adjei-Brenyah says, “I don’t think human beings should put human beings in cages, nor should countries murder citizens”. I am not from America but the Philippines has its fair share of the grueling issues depicted in the book especially in the recent years with our war on drugs. It is comical how we justify murder to curb murder, a deranged adoption of lex talionis (law of retribution), which has a snowballing effect that does not know when to cease. The novel is an in-your-face scrutiny of our society’s penchant for violence, our nonchalance shielded by privilege, our perverted desire for gore, and what we are willing to look over for entertainment.

At the heart of all this, and what I think is the spotlight, are its people. The novel triumphantly humanizes the convicts in its resonant showcase of their honest thoughts and turbulent feelings. Thurwar and Staxxx’s bid to protect their love while finding a path to challenge a system that further debases them is a scenario that easily resonates in the real world today. We are immersed in how the Links found their way into prison and even if some willingly signed up for Chain Gang, others only had it as a choice, a way out from a current plight they could no longer bear.

It is also intriguing to read the parasocial relationships that develop between the Links and their fans, who ironically root for them while also believing that the prisoners deserve to be slaughtered for entertainment because of their crimes. It cautiously pins the fact that despite their past, prisoners are people capable of pain, love, and are worth a chance to reformation.

Even the viewpoint of protesters fighting for the Chain Gang Circuit’s abolition offers a stimulating confrontation. It challenges our ignorant predilection to the false dichotomy of good and bad, that there is only the innocent and the damned. Criminals do great harm but that is mirrored in a system that does not address the very reasons why these people resorted to their ruination—racism, socio-economic inequity, unbridled capitalism, volleys of power, and more. In a way, we are complicit for not challenging a forced status quo as it is easier to be comfortable in one’s glass bubble.

To offer a moral soup that might scorch your very tongue is one thing but Adjei-Brenyah’s prose is not one to preach. There is a deeper philosophical jest—catalyzing the rhetoric and allowing the reader to examine their own values as the story unspools the tight coils of degenerating humanity. Chain Gang All-Stars is disturbingly grim but ends in a hopeful melancholy. It is one that leaves an important uncomfortable feeling; a crack cradling seeds that would grow into the very things that will break the chains that bind us.

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in CHAIN-GANG ALL-STARS, nana kwame adjei-brenyah crafts a distant future dystopia of technologically advanced, corporate-controlled gladiator fighting between chains of incarcerated people across the US, where the most desperate inmates risk violent, public execution for a miniscule chance at freedom in a country where their lives and deaths are served up to the masses as a flashy, lucrative entertainment spectacle via reality tv feeds and arena matches. CHAIN-GANG partially follows two of it’s biggest stars, loretta thurwar and hurricane staxxx, queer black women navigating a system intent on their destruction while upholding their commitments to each other and to their chain.

adjei-brenyah is deeply invested in world building: every page of this book is peppered with descriptions of technology, acronyms, rules and regulations, corporate machinations - not to mention plenty of long footnotes that provide factual legal and historical context. structurally, there are 8+ perspectives introduced across 60 (!!) chapters and multiple subsections, where the reader jumps hurriedly across places, timelines, and POVs. it often felt like i had whiplash, the constant shifting chaotic and haphazard. i had a tough time investing in any aspect of this book when chapters were quick blips, and it was anyone's guess when we would return to that plotline or character.

what i was expecting was an emotionally searing look at the heartbreaking upshot of a warped carceral state, and what i got was...flatline, unsubtle, and tell-y. there were too many uninteresting POVs; character depth was sacrificed to breadth. it wasn't layered, just cluttered. a strong editor could’ve separated the wheat from the chaff so that the best perspectives (imo loretta, staxx, and their chain) got more time to shine. it was frustrating to have the emotional impact of gut-wrenching, BRUTAL scenes be so tempered.

billed as a fiery refutation of mass incarceration and a powerful polemic for modern prison abolitionists, i'm THRILLED that this book has the potential to open eyes and change minds for certain readers. it just wasn't that book for me.

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4.5 stars

Thank you @pantheonbooks and @PRHAudio for the complimentary ARC and audiobook.

It has been some time since I’ve read and loved a Dystopian novel. Chain-Gang All-Stars is excellent, you will love and hate the characters and be broken hearted by the situations they are forced into. But it’s not just dystopian fiction, throughout the novel are eye-opening facts relating to today’s legal and prison system. They are woven so perfectly into the story that it adds depth to the characters and their situation, while also making you stop and think about our current reality. I mostly listened to this, but I would recommend the physical book over the audio. Here is where the half star was lost for me. While overall all of the narrators were phenomenal, there is one character who is from Trinidad and the accent was not done well… at all. It was jarring to listen to and ruined those parts of the audio for me. I would prefer a narrator to not do an accent at all, rather than do one poorly.

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DNF at 25%

Unfortunately this was not for me. I loved the concept. However, I just struggled in following along. Really cool characters, but I just couldn't immerse myself into this futuristic world enough to be able to understand and keep reading.

I've heard so many great things but this wasn't for me.

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This book is written in a unique, literary voice. It strongly parallels the current American social climate, especially the prison system. The author showed it from a new angle, resulting in a deeper understanding of the book.
This is not an action-packed book the reader would find enjoyable. The book is heavy and would most likely make many people uncomfortable. The author is pushing us, readers, out of our comfort bubbles, and for this reason alone the book is a must-read.
I really wanted to know more about people on the outside, the protestors, and how the "show" even became a thing. My favorite part of the book structure was the footnotes, I think that was a brilliant way to add social commentary and explanation.
I hope we will see more books from this author,

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The prepublication buzz around this book has been nearly deafening and it certainly has been one of the titles I was most excited about this year. One line tags have called this an adult Hunger Games but I feel it’s a closer match to the wildly popular Netflix series #SquidGame where contestants play for the chance at millions of dollars to fight to the death. Here, author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah places his blood matches in the world of the prison system, contestants choosing to battle their way to freedom in televised death matches that are sponsored by major corporations, and scare up huge business as contestants become icons, and watching brutal killings a national pastime. These ‘links’ in the chain gang are who we’re really here to see, and at the center are Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx”. Thurwar has reached the final level and is so close to freedom she can taste it. Staxxx is her right hand, confidant, battle partner and lover. This is where his book sang to me.

Every time the narrative moved with them I was absolutely captivated, drawn into their relationship which was a welcome respite after being surrounded by so much brutality. Where the book lost me, was much of the rest of it. Filled with a myriad of other characters that aren’t restricted to the ‘links’ on the chain had me scratching my head early on trying to keep everyone straight. Moreover because there were such a large number of people, I found it hard to really care about many of them as their demises seemed as fast as their backstories. There’s no denying the book is powerful and Adjei-Brenyah’s dystopian vision is a brilliant way of showing the horrors of mass incarceration. I just wish I felt for the rest of them the way I did the two female leads. Thanks to pantheon books for the advance copy !

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In a future world, prisoners who receive a sentence of 25+ years are offered enrolling into a 3 year program that may result in the possibility of winning their way to freedom. The program is sport game where prisoners murder each other at different levels. You either win, die, or stay a prisoner.

These “games” are televised for everyone in America to watch where there people can take bets and there’s also promotions where businesses of course, capitalize on it.

This reminded me a lot of The Hunger Games (but adult) with the class divide but with more of a focus on race and gender. Theres more than just the dystopian, there are literary vibes so we get to know the stories of the characters but there are way too many of them so I began to get lost. That being said, I think the story was too long as well.

If this was shorter it would’ve definitely been stronger but I’m very picky on the length of books these days and this is almost always on my list of complaints. So maybe this is a me thing.

Overall, if this sounds interesting to you I think it’s worth the read! Thank you to Netgalley for an advanced copy of this book.

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

It was all death, slow or fast. Painful or sudden. Nothing more. The culture of Chain-Gang was death.

HUGE thanks to @netgalley and @penguinrandomhouse for a copy in exchange for an honest review.

In a near-future USA, there has been a revolution in the prison system: privatization. With this comes CAPE, or Criminal Action Penal Entertainment, a globally popular TV show where prisoners with long terms are given the “opportunity” to fight to the death. Win enough fights, and you earn your freedom. Lose just once, and you achieve a different freedom: “low freedom”.

The current stars of this show are Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx”, members of the same Chain-Gang, teammates and lovers, both close to achieving freedom. Both are fascinating characters, but Thurwar is an incredible creation, someone struggling to deal with the trappings of fame in a horrific system, thinking of how to bring down a system that constantly rewards her for brutality and bringing in profits for the company. I really liked this line about her role in the show:

“Her survival made the impossible game seem possible. Of course they were foolish and misguided and would end up dead. But in her weaker moments she enjoyed being a beacon. When she was strong she knew she was a flame to moths”.

It’s rare to find a book (at least for me) that nails both plot and character, but Adjei-Brenyah really has a grasp of both, helped hugely by the intricate world-building which allows the characters to breathe. There are a decent number of arcs of numerous characters and we see views from many facets of this new world. Protests groups form, led by the children of downed CAPE participants. Fans get drawn into the slickly presented sports world, bonding with the warriors while still reviling them for the crimes they committed. Some other prisoners are highlighted as well, and I dare you not to be touched by Simon Jungle Craft and Hendrix Young.

Where this book really hammers the nail home, however, is its satire and drawn parallels to the real prison system of America. The book is littered with facts and figures which show that this hyper-violent Hunger Games world is not so far from reality, and is able to do what all great sci-fi speculative fiction should do: show a real-life problem or issue, magnify the issues, and show the flaws.

Having read “Friday Black” earlier in the year, I expected I would like this, but it’s always tricky to go from short stories to a novel, to fully flesh out characters and plots. I needn’t have worried. I loved this book, from the people to the world to the message. I can see some people not liking this – the book jumps around a lot, and it’s brutal at points, but all of that was essential to the story for me. It’s an angry book, rightfully so, and one I urge people to check out. Joining the chorus of positivity on this one.

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It's already on order for my library. I have no words besides this is a phenomenal book. It takes on so much and so well. I'll be thinking about this one for the rest of the year.

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The book starts strong with a unique premise but it quickly lost steam for me because I didn’t enjoy how the book was presented.

The unclear narrator(s), ambiguous timeline, and lack of focus to bring it all together in order for me to enjoy what I was reading never came, so I DNF’d it at almost 50% - hey, at least I really tried.

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I absolutely loved this book!! It was both brutal and eye opening. I loved the footnotes, some fictitious some factual. This would be a fantastic book club pick. It is a challenging read with many characters to keep up with. A diagram of the chain would have been very helpful. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

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I don't even know what to say about Chain Gang All Stars, but I'll start by saying this is a book that will stay with me. While it is part sci-fi, it is also full of information about the prison system in America and real life human beings who have suffered because of it. Reading this will make you feel uncomfortable, angry, and sad.

Set in a not-so distant future hard-action sports serve as a way out of serving time in traditional penitentiaries. These gladiator style battles only end when one competitor defeats and kills their opponent. When the "links" aren't battling to the death they're marching to their next battle city. Floating anchors prevent links from stepping out of line and fleeing and the cameras are always on. There is no privacy. Melee style battles during marches aren't uncommon and pit different chains against one another until another life is claimed. Death is the only way out.

This book is brutal and graphic. Reading about Simon J Craft and Singer Hendrix's imprisonments before they joined CAPE was awful and showed how easy it is for the prison system to break a person. I've seen others post that this book would be great for book club and I definitely agree with that. There is a lot of unpack here and a lot of discussion to be had. Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is a phenomenal writer and I'll be moving his short story collection to the top of my (neverending) TBR.

Thank you to NetGalley and Pantheon for advance copy. I've already purchased a physical copy for my library.

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Unhinged and exceptional. Chain Gang All Stars is unrelentingly brutal. I loved Black Friday and this debut novel does not disappoint. I grabbed a hardcover as I loved this ARC so much.

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A full 4 stars! This is a great book despite the grim (violent) content. The writing is strong and the pov clear. I love the mix of inside and outside characters as well as the tragic facts that are interwoven to strengthen the social commentary. We are very close to this being a reality which is awful to write, but feels true. Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC and Libro.fm for the ALC. the audiobook is very well produced.

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★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2 (rounded up)
This originally appeared at The Irresponsible Reader.
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Before I begin, let me just say that you are wasting your time reading this post when you could be out buying or borrowing and reading this book.

If you've made the mistake of sticking around, I'll go ahead and talk about the book, I guess. But really, your priorities are wrong.

WHAT'S CHAIN-GANG ALL-STARS ABOUT?
In the not-too-distant future, laws regarding the incarceration of serious felons have been adjusted, and the Criminal Action Penal Entertainment program is born. Under CAPE, convicted murderers (many with other convictions as well) can be set free before the end of their sentence if they agree to participate. Participation however, could result in their violent death.

Under CAPE, these felons will face off one-on-one (sometimes two-on-two) against other felons in a fight to the death. If you survive a bout, you score some points and progress to the next fight (in a week or so). As you gain victories, you can earn points to be used for weapons, better food, clothing, equipment, etc. After three years, you will be released.

These felons are organized in Chain Gangs associated with the participating prisons. Links (as the fighters are called) in the same Chain do not face off against each other, and become (to varying degrees depending on their chain) teams—encouraging each other, giving tips, etc.

This has become the largest sports entertainment in the U.S. Throngs show up for live events or to watch a stream. You can also subscribe to almost constant live feeds of the Links between fights. Some fighters become superstars, with corporate sponsors, merchandise, inspiring their own fashion trends, etc.

Over the course of the novel, we follow (primarily) one Link from her initial bout to the final weeks of her time. We get to know her Chain—a couple of Links in particular—as well as Links from other Chains, so we can see how people join, survive, and (usually) die through this entertainment. We also get to know some of the executives and sportscasters becoming rich from this, some fans and subscribers—as well as some of the protestors trying to stop the program.

THE LINKS
Most of the time we follow Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker. LT's on the verge of freedom, and Staxxx isn't far behind. They try (with some success) to get their Chain to act differently, to help each other in ways others don't. At the same time, they're dealing with the emotions of LT not being around for much longer (one way or another) and Staxxx moving into the leadership role. We get to know them and their team, what brought them to this point in their lives, and what might be around the corner.

But we don't just focus on those two—there are other Links, in other Chains, that we watch. Some as they make the transition from prisoner to Link, some in their early (and final) bouts. As horrible as the fights to the death are—and they are—it's the time with these other Links that really cements the horror of what is happening to and through all the Links. There's one man who spends a lot of time in solitary confinement and some of what he goes through made a bigger impact on me than the bloodiest death.

None of these links would claim to be a good person—well, there's one wrongly convicted man, but his innocence doesn't last long as a Link. They know they're criminals, killers, and most would say they don't deserve life or freedom. But none of them deserve this.

EVERYONE ELSE
As fantastic as the portions of the novel about the Links are, I think it's these characters and seeing how they relate to CAPE that is the genius of the novel. A society cannot spend so much money (and earn it, too) on something like this without it shaping it and the people in it. Think of how so much of the US economy, news, and entertainment in January/February is devoted to the Super Bowl. Now magnify that, make it year-long, and add some serious ethical and moral issues.

The corporate figures are easy enough to write off as villains. And Adjei-Brenyah does that really well—but he makes sure we see them as human villains. The kind of people it's easy to imagine existing given the right circumstances—these are not cartoons.

The protestors we see are complex as well—they're smart, passionate people, who are trying their best to put an end to this modern slavery. They make bold moves, some stupid ones, too. But they also have to wrestle with the ramifications of their positions. One in particular is the child of a Link—she doesn't have a relationship with him anymore, she doesn't want anything to do with him but doesn't want him killed in this way. But she doesn't want him roaming around outside of a prison, either. There's an honesty to the portrayal of these protestors that I find admirable—they may not have the answers about the right way to deal with serious criminals, but they do know what's wrong and are willing to take their stand.

The portrayal that's going to stay with me the longest is of a young woman who finds the matches distasteful—not necessarily morally repugnant, but not the kind of thing she wants to watch. But goes along with her boyfriend to placate him—he's a giant fanboy with strong opinions and facts to back them up. He's reciting them to her constantly, but she tries not to pay attention. She does start to get involved in the live streams about the out-of-combat lives of these Links—think Survivor meets Big Brother. She eventually becomes invested in some Links through those streams and that opens a can of worms.

THE ENDNOTES
The Endnotes are a particularly interesting feature of this book—so interesting I'll bite back my default complaint about choosing to use endnotes when footnotes exist.

In this novel, the notes are a fascinating combination. The first type are notes about the characters and events in the novel—a little more background, or other detail that doesn't fit in the text proper. I don't remember seeing this kind of footnote in a book as serious as this one, but Adjei-Brenyah pulled it off well.

The second type of endnote material cites laws (real and fictional), studies, and actual history surrounding the contemporary American penal system. In addition to being valuable information for the reader to have in general—or when it comes to talking about this book—this is a clever device for Adjei-Brenyah to keep it fresh in the reader's mind that while this is a novel, it's a novel well-grounded in things that matter—things he wants the reader to care about and hopefully take action in response to knowing this material.

SO, WHAT DID I THINK ABOUT CHAIN-GANG ALL-STARS?
This is going to be one of the best books I've read in 2023. It's well-written, the characters are fantastically drawn and depicted, the pacing is perfect—the story doesn't stop moving, and the perspective jumps just draw you in closer. The moral and ethical questions are real, but not all of the answers are. I don't know how you walk away from this book unmoved and unprovoked to think and perhaps act. There are moments when Adjei-Brenyah makes it clear that you can enjoy yourself with these characters—but there are many more that will make you hate this world. Most of those will remind you how easily it could be ours.

But you won't stop turning the pages until the end.

There's so much that I want to talk about, so many things that Adjei-Brenyah did that many writers don't—or wouldn't have thought of. But I just don't have the time to get into it (or I'd ruin the experience for you).

Here's one example. At some point around the 20% mark, we're given an (well-executed and seamless) infodump, that largely serves to tell the reader that anything they've surmised about the CAPE program is correct (or to adjust any misunderstandings, I guess) and to give a few more details. A well-timed and well-executed infodump is great to find—one that's largely a reaffirmation is even better. That affirmation is welcome so that you can move on with certainty.

The author talks about changes in his outlook on the American penal system during the writing and research he did for this book. I don't know that I can agree with him on those, but it's something I had to consider because of the novel. And I can certainly empathize with his thinking. I can't imagine there are many who don't think our penal system needs reformation of some kind—there's little agreement on what needs reform, and less on how it should be done. But a side-benefit of this novel is that the reader will have to think about their own positions some. It's not all a diatribe about our prisons—it's a book that you can just read for the story—but you'll not want to.

Lastly, for a book that's about death—violent death at the hands of violent people who only hope to go on so they can kill again—the book is really about life. It's a celebration of life, a call to protect it, a call to see it for what it is. It's a reminder that "where life is precious, life is precious."

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Knopf, Pantheon, Vintage, and Anchor via NetGalley in exchange for this post—thanks to both for this.

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4.5 stars.

The vibes here are very similar to Adjei-Brenyah’s stellar short story collection, Friday Black: smart, incisive, shocking yet uncomfortably familiar. I liked how the narrative is told in short sections that jump between points of view, and I thought the characters were very well fleshed out, especially considering that we only get to know some of them for a brief time. The way the emotional side of the story is amplified by the use of facts about the American prison system in footnotes is just perfect. And the ideas about entertainment, violence, punishment, justice, prison, and freedom… I will be thinking about this book for a long time.

Honestly the only reason this isn’t a full five stars for me is that the ending felt slightly abrupt and a little confusing—I had to go back and re-read it a few times to figure out what happened. But overall an incredible first novel for Adjei-Brenyah, and one that I can’t wait to own in physical form.

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