Sci-fi Novel Review: Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

While Chain-Gang All-Stars doesn’t seem to be generating much buzz in genre-centric circles, it seems that one can hardly read a “Best of 2023” list in more literary-leaning outlets without seeing it listed as an absolute must-read. Throw in a couple recommendations on social media and my own penchant for survival games, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s literary sci-fi climbed to the top of my own “2023 catch-up” list. And it’s hard to say it didn’t earn its place. 

Chain-Gang All-Stars is told from a host of different perspectives—even switching to first-person for a handful of scenes involving at least two separate characters—all orbiting around a gladiatorial game in which death row inmates are offered a chance to earn their freedom via a series of fights to the death. Should they die, it constitutes their execution. Should they live, they’ll be freed as an instantly-recognizable celebrity and one of the most accomplished athletes in the world. While most of the story is told from the perspective of those doing the fighting, there are also segments through the eyes of fans, protestors, promoters, support staff, and at least one other prisoner. 

Chain-Gang All-Stars leads hard with the theme, and it’s impossible to read without noticing the incisive and uncompromising critique of the US prison-industrial complex. If the plot summary alone weren’t enough to make its point clear, there are copious footnotes offering real-life statistics or individual cases demonstrating the injustices and abuses within the system. And yet the story never comes across as subservient to the theme—yes, the story being told is designed to send a message, but Adjei-Brenyah never forgets that he is storytelling first. 

The shape of that story, on the other hand, remains opaque for a good quarter of the book. The novel leads with an absolutely brutal combat scene—the content warning list here is a mile long; this is for readers with strong stomachs—that serves as the public origin story of one of the main characters, but it quickly shifts perspective to a host of secondary and tertiary characters that give Chain-Gang All-Stars the feel of a mosaic novel. Enough of a central storyline emerges that I’d hesitate to apply the mosaic label, but the story never abandons those minor point-of-view sections, and its ability to bring its side characters to life is one of the novel’s greatest strengths. 

Because it truly does bring all corners of the whole sordid enterprise to life. The focus remains on the convicts coerced into combat—complete with footnotes upon every death that explains just what that person had done to find themselves on death row—but the outside perspectives never really feel like random throwaways. Whether we’re hearing from a reality TV fan or a protestor or the designer of a torture device, the perspective comes to life in such a way as to make that small vignette just as compelling as the overarching plot. The vibrancy of the secondary perspectives and side stories proves a true strength of the book, with a care shown to the people outside the center circle that reminds me of the work of Simon Jimenez. 

But Chain-Gang All-Stars isn’t just about the secondary perspectives. It’s clear from the get-go who the main characters are, and while their story may develop slowly as other subplots take their moments, it does develop into a gripping and emotionally devastating main arc. The story slowly builds an attachment to the main characters, even as it shines a spotlight on the brutality of their actions, both past and present. It would’ve been easy to center the story on someone who was purely a victim of circumstances—and indeed, some of the death row combatants are just that—but Chain Gang All-Stars pursues the more difficult path of humanizing genuine murderers, and it does so with aplomb. 

This feeds into the overall theme about the dehumanization of those in the prison system. The book doesn’t directly advocate for any positive policy proposal, but it paints a compelling picture of the horrors of the current American prison system. And these horrors are not just because there are innocent people suffering in prison—even murderers are people and deserve to be treated as such. 

Chain-Gang All-Stars is inextricable from its social backdrop, in the manner of one of those novels that gets assigned in school when the curriculum seeks to use literature to explore history. But being written to make a point doesn’t mean it doesn’t tell a fantastic story along the way. A remarkably compelling exploration of all of the little people whose lives are tied into the gladiatorial enterprise supplements an outstanding set of core characters and a deeply affecting central plot. This is a brutal book, no doubt, but it may also be the best I read in 2023.  

Recommended if you like: survival games, theme-driven stories, mosaic novels. 

Can I use it for BingoIt’s hard mode for Literary SFF, POC Author, Published in 2023, and I’d argue “all-stars” make it hard mode for Title in the Title. 

Overall rating: 19 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads. 


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