Book cover of Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, depicting a red scythe with flames springing out from the tip

Chain-Gang All-Stars

Genres: ,

Published: May 02, 2023

Format: Hardcover

ISBN: 978-0593317334

TW: self-harm, racism, death, torture, sexual assault


The book explores themes of incarceration, activism, human greed and selfishness, blissful ignorance, and the evils of late stage capitalism. It does so by giving us the perspective of nearly every major characters, from Loretta and Staxxx to the broadcast director of this cruel and deadly programming, and even the announcer who bathes in the glory of being the overseer of the battleground in all its brutality. We are given every layer that contributes to the horrors of Chain-Gang All-Stars, which in a way makes for a beautiful critique of every one of us who plays a part in the injustice faced by the most vulnerable and overlooked communities.


The Brilliance of Adjei-Brenyah

Adjei-Brenyah excels at using the speculative to depict the capitalist standardization of brutality and inhumanity. These distant corporate overlords dictate the fate of the inmates, and they work to make this brutality more palatable to their consumer base—even, and particularly, children.

It’s a hierarchy of complicity, with everyone absolving themselves of responsibility for the barbaric practice of death for entertainment. Everyone plays their part, all the way up to the elusive and mysterious corporations and their filthy rich founders.

I’ve always love how Adjei-Brenyah masterfully portrays the normalization of so much evil and cruelty. He was similarly skilled at this in his debut book, Friday Black, particularly when it comes to the stories “Zimmer Land” and the book’s flagship story, “Friday Black.”

This corporatism and endless bureaucracy sugarcoating human cruelty is done through sponsorships and the required “Civic Duties,” of the inmates, which in reality are just forcing them to go on press tours to maximize viewership when the deadly battles are about to take place; profiting from pain and death, all with a smile, a signature, and a handshake or two.

At one point, well-meaning corporate stooge Jerry mentions how nice the chain’s accommodations will be for their press tour—at a local high school. You see, our corporate overlords tell us as they very strategically position their inmate players as celebrities, and the games as a fun and harmless American sport, this death match is fun for the whole family! Sponsored by a mega home improvement or grocery chain your family probably frequents!


Patricia, the Genius Revolutionary

There’s a dark beauty in one of the characters, Patricia, dedicating her life to ending pain like what she had to watch her father endure. His bone cancer, slowly eating him alive, drives Patricia to cutting herself to feel pain as well. Despite being a brilliant scientist who could truly do some good if only given the tools, she is relegated to a lab that co-opts her accidental discovery of something quite the opposite of a pain reliever: the ultimate torture device. Her work, her life’s mission, is “stolen from her” and “she [is] being used to do the exact opposite of ending pain.” She is talked down to by her ex-partner and his father, both white, and both equally condescending to her despite her being more capable than both of them combined.

She exists as a tool and not the revolutionary medicinal changemaker she could be. It speaks to the prevalence of white mediocrity (please note: the term “white mediocrity” does not mean that white people are mediocre. Instead, it means that white people can be mediocre and still succeed, whereas Black and brown people are heavily scrutinized regardless of our credentials and accomplishments. Patricia and her partner/boss are a great example of this). Her brilliance is meaningless; she is just a cog in the machine, and unwilling contributor to the suffering.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Pain and suffering are reserved for the most vulnerable among us, those we deem unfit for civil society. And even literal genius does not exempt Black women from constant scrutiny and condescension, and there is no greater torment than being a cog in the machine, fully aware and yet utterly helpless.


Emily, The Well-Meaning Wealthy White Woman

Emily is a great addition to the book: a well-meaning white woman who knows that Chain-Gang All-Stars is barbaric, but nonetheless winds up hooked, and binge watches it like the trashy reality TV shows that wine moms obsess over.

She seems to see herself as above the average viewer because she disapproves, but her complacency is undeniable. She enjoys the carnage. She enjoys having a “bad guy” to root against and a “good guy” to root for, even as she acknowledges the barbarism of the program as a whole. And as expected ,when her husband pleads with her to give it a try, she gets just as obsessed as any other viewer of the terrible, violent spectacle.


The Footnotes

The footnotes throughout the book are, in my opinion, absolutely crucial to the story itself. They ground this horrifying speculative story in reality, connecting it to the real, present day that marginalized communities face every day, especially Black people. Real, undeniable empirical evidence of the cruelty the government and the ruling class are capable of, proves that we are not so far after all from this dark tale of death for entertainment that Adjei-Brenyah paints for us.

When you read the book, do not skip the footnotes.



To my complete lack of surprise, Chain-Gang All-Stars is a beautiful, horrifying ride—a biting commentary on capitalism, injustice, and the complacency of the public. Five stars, and I recommend you give it a read, pay close attention to the footnotes, and really let yourself absorb the story and its many nuances.

My review turned out much longer than I had intended, and it still doesn’t even scratch the surface of the many themes explored in this book. Seriously, give it a read and see what you take away from it.


Top Quotes

“The nut to crack in any criminal-justice sport was to separate the criminal from the human.” (p. 267)

“…the officers seemed keen on proving they were good men, that they weren’t the enemy, and yet there could be no enemy but them.” (p. 258)

“Sai Eye knew what was to come. People telling them what they thought or didn’t think about their identity. So many opinions that were never asked for…Sai Eye had long before decided to accept their harshness with a laugh.” (p. 261)

“*It is estimated that between 2.3 percent and 5 percent of incarcerated people in America are innocent. That number represents over 100,000 people. George Stinney Jr., again and again.” (p. 262 footnote)

“*Tear gas has been deemed a ‘riot control agent,’ which exempts it from chemical weapon law. As such, it is regularly used by police on citizens in city streets, while still being prohibited from war zones.'” (p. 286 footnote)

“There were the sounds of bullets being fired into droves of protestors, the men shooting them urging calm…the police begged again for peace as they rolled their tanks forward.” (p. 285-286)

By The Angry Noodle

Bryanna Gary is the founder of The Angry Noodle. She is very smol and noodly, and also dipped in pasta sauce.

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