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Chain-Gang All-Stars - Review

I received a physical copy from Pantheon Publisher. All reviews are my own.

The excitement I had when I saw the cover of Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah floated all over my timeline in these book streets was something adjacent to The Rumbling in Attack on Titan. Yes, the nerd in me comes out sometimes. I was ready for whatever the book had to throw at me. It took me a year to finally read and complete it annnnd I’m not as excited about it as I was. Here’s why:

"Two top women gladiators fight for their freedom within a depraved private prison system not so far-removed from America's own.
Loretta Thurwar and Hamara "Hurricane Staxxx" Stacker are the stars of Chain-Gang All-Stars, the cornerstone of CAPE, or Criminal Action Penal Entertainment, a highly-popular, highly-controversial, profit-raising program in America's increasingly dominant private prison industry. It's the return of the gladiators and prisoners are competing for the ultimate prize: their freedom.
In CAPE, prisoners travel as Links in Chain-Gangs, competing in death-matches for packed arenas with righteous protestors at the gates. Thurwar and Staxxx, both teammates and lovers, are the fan favorites. And if all goes well, Thurwar will be free in just a few matches, a fact she carries as heavily as her lethal hammer. As she prepares to leave her fellow Links, she considers how she might help preserve their humanity, in defiance of these so-called games, but CAPE's corporate owners will stop at nothing to protect their status quo and the obstacles they lay in Thurwar's path have devastating consequences.
Moving from the Links in the field to the protestors to the CAPE employees and beyond,
Chain-Gang All-Stars is a kaleidoscopic, excoriating look at the American prison system's unholy alliance of systemic racism, unchecked capitalism, and mass incarceration, and a clear-eyed reckoning with what freedom in this country really means."

In the beginning, 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. It reminded me a lot of Will Scifi’s Nova’s Blade. But after one too many points of view, political persuasions, and multiple footnotes that were either historical, current news, or background information on fictional characters, my interest in the Chain Gang started to lose its steam. 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.

I did like the direction of how Adjei-Brenyah weaved the story. Though I wasn’t a fan of the footnotes, some contextual facts made me dive deep into the prison and justice system to learn more. I did some major digging with some of the cases Adjei-Brenyah mentioned regarding people like Cyntoia Brown and Kalief Browder. He pointed out the unfairness in the justice system while also shining a light on the inhumanity the justice system imposes on the “guilty.” Because not everybody is guilty.

I also liked the main characters, Hurricane Staxxx and Thurwar. They carried the story and were the reason why I decided to finish it. They were mysterious and electrifying, and I had to know the outcome of the games and their relationship.

Overall, I rated this book 3-stars. I’ve read better. It was mainly the POVs and the footnotes that turned me off. It was a cool story, but I likely wouldn’t reread it.

Chain-Gang All-Stars is available now!

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