Where Life Is Precious, Life Is Precious
Chain Gang All-Stars feels like a mash-up of The Handmaid’s Tale and Battle Royale, with a sprinkling of Gladiator for good measure. Rather than taking the absolute best from each of these individually brilliant offerings, this post-apocalyptic and bleak novel slides elegantly over the main themes of each, bringing them together into an enticing but ultimately polarizing book.
The story is incredibly violent but author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah has made sure that this is deliberate. There are several telling chapters in this book that really stand out and breathe life into what Adjei-Brenyah is trying to do here; a kaleidoscopically changing viewpoint of a world consumed and ravaged by hard action sports.
Before we get to all that, we’re introduced to a near-future where prisoners are pitted against each other in blood sports. It’s a fight to the death, and we’re onto season 32 of this already. In that time, the rules have been changed and been tweaked, serving as both gladiatorial fights and Big Brother-esque reality TV.
“Chain Gangs” now operate as different teams who are ultimately pitted against other Chain Gangs in singles, doubles or “Melee” matches. Each of the individual participants are intentionally stripped of their humanity for the audience of these fights, with the colloquial term of “Links” used instead.
Chain-Gang All Stars is the brainchild of CAPE (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment) which operates as a quick-fix to alleviate the growing prison problem in America. Combatants are pitted against one another for the ultimate prize – freedom. The catch here, is that freedom comes with a heavy price to pay.
The early parts of the book zip across numerous different perspectives and this happens to be the book’s biggest draw and also its Achille’s Heel too. In its desire to tell a more complete story, the focus shifts so often, to so many different characters, that it can be hard to nail down an anchor point.
However, that anchor mostly gravitates around the two star “Links” in the games. Hurricane Staxxx and Loretta Thurwar. These two ferocious women have risen the ranks against all odds and are ready for whatever the Gamemakers throw their way. However, dissent outside the mass consumers of this entertainment begins to rise as protestors take to the streets, believing that this barbaric form of “entertainment” should be stopped.
As the book progresses, both storylines interweave around several other characters, along with slight timeline deviations too as point of views shift. In fact, one chapter late on shifts perspectives about 6 times in quick succession. While this does work to elevate the tension, it can also make for a somewhat acquired taste too as you never truly get enough time to settle down and get into the headspace of each character.
The ending is also another point of contention and while I’m not about to spoil that here, it solidifies that really, this book is more of a think piece than an outstanding narrative with a cohesive beginning, middle and end structure. After all, where does violence end and life begins?
This hard-hitting message is repeated throughout the book and at one point, we see what this “game” does to the average viewer. A housewife is enticed into watching the games with her husband, and her journey into the world of hard action sports takes a very surprising turn. Similarly, there’s a chapter in here where one of the protestors speaks about the prison system and how (in her own words): “The carceral state depends on a dichotomy between innocent and guilty, or good and bad, so that they can then define harm on their terms, in the name of justice, and administer it on a massive scale to support a capitalistic, violent, and inherently inequitable system.”
The writing style throughout the book is fantastic and each of the different point of view characters have their own defined way of speaking and thinking. There are several seemingly inconsequential characters in here – Simon and Hendrix – who end up on a collision course with destiny, as they cleverly become entangled in the final conflict.
The reaction from the audience though is likely to echo that of readers. Like a bloody fight that sees two combatants give their absolute all, laying it all out on the line, it’s gut-wrenchingly hard to watch…but you must to see who wins. The final 50 pages or so of this book really echoes that sentiment.
It won’t be for everyone but those who can take to the constantly revolving point of view chapters will find a lot to like here. Chain Gang All-Stars is utterly enthralling; a violent, dark and thought provoking book that’s easy to pick up and difficult to put down.
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Verdict - 8/10