58 pages 1 hour read

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Chain Gang All Stars

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2023

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Summary and Study Guide


Chain-Gang All-Stars (2023) is a dystopian satirical novel by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. In an alternate near-future United States, incarcerated people facing either execution or 25-plus years of imprisonment can elect to become Gladiators in lieu of their original sentence. If they survive three years of death matches against other incarcerated people, they can be granted a pardon and rejoin society. Told through rotating perspectives, the novel exposes the violence that is woven through the penal system, entertainment sports, and capitalism itself while also exploring the possibility of redemption, love, and self-forgiveness as an alternative to the cycle of violence and self-loathing that is encouraged by the current penal system.

This guide refers to the hardcover edition published by Pantheon Books in 2023.

Content Warning: Chain-Gang All-Stars and this guide refer to graphic violence, murder, systemic racism, sexual assault, and suicide. Chain-Gang All-Stars contains racist language.

Plot Summary

In an alternate history version of the present-day US, incarcerated people who have received the death penalty or a prison sentence of 25-plus years can opt to instead participate in the Criminal Action Penal Entertainment (CAPE) program, wherein they compete in weekly televised death matches against other incarcerated people. If they survive three years in CAPE, by killing each of their opponents, they can receive High Freedom, a pardon for their crimes, and be released from incarceration. So far, only one person has achieved this, and his success was rigged as a publicity stunt by the GameMasters.

After being tortured in prison via solitary confinement and a super painful new device called the Influencer, Loretta Thurwar joins the CAPE program. She believes she deserves to die because she committed a murder; however, her opponent, Melancholia Bishop, allows Thurwar to win even though this fight would have been Bishop’s last match before High Freedom.

Nearly three years later, Thurwar is on the Angola-Hammond Chain (nicknamed A-Hamm) with Hamara Stacker (also known as Hurricane Staxxx), and the two are in love. Thurwar is close to High Freedom, and Staxxx isn’t far behind.

One night, Sunset Harkless, another Link on their Chain, is killed. Normally, everything the Chain does is recorded for reality TV, but occasionally there’s a special BlackOut night. Sunset’s murder occurred during the last one of these, so Thurwar doesn’t know who killed him. Protestors show up at the Chain’s next weekly match, including Sunset’s daughter, Mari.

This week, Thurwar’s match is a Question—her opponent is not announced in advance. When it turns out that she faces a 16-year-old child, whom she kills, fans claim that the fight is unfair. Their complaints, however, ignore the fact that the entire system is unfair and that survival is very unlikely for any Link in a Chain. As Guards lead the winning Thurwar out through the crowd, Mari slips her a note describing a disturbing new rule for Season 33: Thurwar will have to fight Staxxx.

The novel flashes back a year. Hendrix Young is incarcerated at a silent prison where he works at a slaughterhouse for no pay. After he loses an arm, Young is given the chance to join CAPE, which he accepts, becoming a Link on the Sing-Attica-Sing Chain. New Links must make do with relatively useless weapons, basic clothes, no armor, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Through killing people and earning Blood Points, they can buy things that will help their continued survival. During all this, Links are magnetically held in place so they can’t escape or go places besides where the GameMasters want them to be. All Links also have to do civil service and other duties besides fighting and can only own what is purchased through the program. If they break any rules or refuse to fight, they are killed.

In the present, A-Hamm’s van driver takes the Chain to a remote location from where they’ll begin their March toward their next Hub City for their death matches the following week. The Links camp for the night. After Staxxx and Thurwar implement a new no-violence rule among their teammates, Staxxx confesses she killed Sunset, saying that she had to do it but not explaining further. Thurwar assumes Staxxx must have had a good reason.

When A-Hamm’s melee against another Chain ends when an opponent dies by suicide, Staxxx finally explains why she killed Sunset: He asked Staxxx to assist in his death. Staxxx also tells Thurwar that she already knows about the new rule that they have to fight each other.

The novel flashes back again. An incarcerated man named Simon J. Craft is put in solitary confinement after killing another incarcerated man in self-defense.

After a guard abuses Craft repeatedly with the Influencer, Craft joins the Sing-Attica-Sing Chain. Unstable from the torture, Craft immediately kills the whole Chain except Young, whom he seems to obey and trust deeply. Young and Craft are alone on their Chain for over a year due to a lawsuit focused on Craft’s mental health status.

A-Hamm goes to Staxxx’s hometown and does civil service at a farmers market. Protestors and fans are both there, and a brawl ensues. Thurwar buys better food and weapons for her teammates, preparing for the doubles match where she and Staxxx will fight Young and Craft—Thurwar’s second-to-last match. When Mari protests at the match, she is Influenced and removed. Thurwar and Staxxx win, killing the remaining Sing-Attica-Sing members.

After a news reporter makes a public speech against CAPE, the public’s criticism of the program is reinvigorated, resulting in more planned protests. Even some of the GameMasters start questioning the morality of CAPE and its rules.

Staxxx and Thurwar decide that whoever wins their match against each other will go on to join the protestors and end CAPE. Thurwar ends up winning the fight and thus earning her pardon. The novel ends ambiguously but implies that Thurwar will join the protests as planned, using her High Freedom to help the collective.

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Related Titles

By Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah