I had plenty of reasons to pick up Chain-Gang All-Stars, the debut novel by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. It made The New York Times “Ten Best Books of the Year” list. It was nominated for a National Book Award. And it was a Read with Jenna Book Club pick (that would be Jenna Bush).
Plus, I’m always up for a good dose of dystopia (even wrote one myself: The Culling).
The premise: a privatized, for-profit prison system in the U.S. has gotten into the entertainment business, and prisoners can opt into CAPE (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment) in which they become gladiators, matched up against each other in fights to the death. Survive for three years and you’re free. They call it hard action sports.
If this grisly concept sounds familiar to you it’s because this novel is a mashup of The Hunger Games (not a fan), Gladiator (with Russell Crowe), and that James Caan movie Rollerball from the 1970s. Maybe it’s true there are only seven stories in the world with countless ways to tell them.
The prisoners are called Links and they’re assigned to chain gangs that march around the countryside and end up at arenas where the matches take place. Everything is filmed and broadcast. The story focuses on two of the greatest fighters ever—the female warriors, Staxxx and Thurwar, who are lovers and on the same chain gang.
Adjei-Brenyah hits a lot of the notes that signal this is an important novel in today’s publishing culture: racism, inhumane incarceration, LGBTQ characters. He comes up with some original touches: the weapons the fighters use (hammers, spears, scythes, etc.) all have names. And the fighters earn blood points they can spend on weapon upgrades, armor, better food, and other assets.
Interspersed within the primary narrative are smaller subplots about the rabid fanbase (think NFL), corporate sponsors, and protestors of this extreme cruelty. None of these minor notes are carried long enough to be cohesive. There are also many minor characters—other prisoners on other chain gangs—that are hard to keep straight or care too much about, especially with the dynamic Staxxx and Thurwar on center stage most of the time.
Many reviewers commented on the brutal violence, but I found the battle scenes to be muted. Someone gets impaled by a spear. Someone’s head gets crushed. I’m not saying I wanted graphic, bloody, detailed fight sequences, but given the nature of the book, I expected the violent scenes to be more vivid and visceral. It’s almost like Adjei-Brenyah forgot the cardinal rule of fiction: show don’t tell. Either that or he was trying not to please a literary audience.
The novel is well-written and briskly paced (except for a middle section that sags a bit and could have used an editor’s touch), and I have no regrets about reading Chaing-Gang All-Stars. But a top ten of the year? I think not. It’s an ordinary entry in the new DEI canon.