Extract: Chain-Gang All-Stars

Read an extract from Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. Enter a world where, livestreamed to millions, prisoners fight like gladiators for the ultimate prize: their freedom.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

She felt their eyes, all those executioners.

‘Welcome, young lady,’ said Micky Wright, the premier announcer for Chain-Gang All-Stars, the crown jewel in the Criminal Action Penal Entertainment program. ‘Why don’t you tell us your name?’ His high boots were planted in the turf of the BattleGround, which was long and green, stroked with cocaine-white hash marks, like a divergent football field. It was Super Bowl weekend, a fact that Wright was contractually obligated to mention between every match that evening.

‘You know my name.’

She noticed her own steadiness and felt a dim love for herself. Strange. She’d counted herself wretched for so long. But the crowd seemed to appreciate her boldness. They cheered, though their support was edged with a brutal irony. They looked down on this Black woman, dressed in the gray jumpsuit of the incarcerated. She was tall and strong, and they looked down on her and the tight coils of black hair on her head. They looked down gleefully. She was about to die. They believed this the way they believed in the sun and moon and the air they breathed.

‘Feisty,’ Wright said with a grin. ‘Maybe that’s what we should call you—Little Miss Feisty.’

‘My name is Loretta Thurwar,’ she said. She looked at the people all around her. There were so many of them, so many waves of humans who would never be the object of such cruel attention. Would never know how it made you feel, both tiny and all-powerful. How the thrum of thousands was so loud, so constant, it could disappear from your ears but continue to roar as something felt in the body. Thurwar gripped the weapon she’d been given: a thin spiraling corkscrew with a cherrywood handle. It was light and simple and weak.

‘Not Little Miss Feisty, then?’ Wright said, walking a wide orbit around her.


'Welcome to the BattleGround, baby.'

The bells began to sound.

Wright screamed into the air, ‘Please rise for Her Majesty!’ He ran the rest of the way to his announcer’s box.

The crowd stood on their feet. They held themselves still and erect. For her.

She walked onto the faux football field. Aluminum alloy on her arms. Braids that stopped at the back of her neck. Exposed shoulders each tattooed with the WholeMarket™ logo. A series of rods jutted out from her chest guard and circled her muscled abdomen to form a sleek cage. It was a custom creation. Thurwar had watched, even cheered, the first time she’d seen that the metallic pieces, initially thought to be exclusively defensive, were more. She’d been watching, huddled with the others in her cell block around the streaming video feed, when the woman had removed two of the rods from her guard and pressed them into Slingshot Bob’s eyes.

And now Thurwar was seeing them up close. This was Melancholia Bishop’s final fight. Bishop had made it. She had done what no woman before her had done, survived three years on the Circuit. Three years of slamming down her hammer, Hass Omaha, and swiping her mace, Vega. Three years conquering souls.

‘Drowned King County’s very own Queen of the Damned!’

‘Drowned King County’s very own Queen of the Damned!’

All she had in her hands was her helmet. Melody’s Helm. Crusader-style, made of tin with a gold cross down its middle.

‘The Annihilator, the Bad News Bitch, the Death Songstress herself!’ The seventh bell rang; the people screamed. For years this had been their sacred ritual. The seven bells of Melancholia Bishop. They’d seen her wipe scum off the earth. They’d seen her kill women and men whom they’d once claimed to love. Now she stood and looked out at them for the last time. Soon, she would be free.




The crowd chanted. Her brown eyes explored the bleachers. Then she raised the helm above her head. Once it was on, she was home.




‘For the last time ever,’ Wright cheered, ‘please help me welcome the winningest woman ever to step on the BattleGround. The Mistress of the Murder Ballad. The Sacred Sweetheart. The Crusader. The baddest the planet has ever seen. Your very own Melody ‘Melancholia Bishop’ Price!’

Your very own, Thurwar thought, rattled by the force of the love that exploded out from the audience. They loved her so, and still, this woman, despite it all, belonged to none of them. She had an aura about her that made that clear. It was enough to push Thurwar’s eyes down to the ground. As if the woman in front of her truly were royalty.

Thurwar watched, bowed in her Keep, an impossible power in front of her. The hammer and the mace. On one side of the field there was a knight in her armor. On the other, there was Thurwar in a jumpsuit, a corkscrew slick in her clammy hands.

They loved her so, and still, this woman, despite it all, belonged to none of them.



‘Any final words for us, Melancholia?’ Wright asked.

‘What’s left to say?’ she said, her voice echoing metallic but familiar through her helmet as she addressed the crowd. ‘I’m in the same place I started.’

The crowd cheered wildly.

‘When I got here, I had two Ms on my back. Two murders. When I leave, I’ll still just have two. But I had to kill so many more people than that to get here.’

‘That’s very true. You’ve cleaved through so many,’ Wright said. ‘But any of those stand out to you? So many highlights. And you’ve overcome more than your fair share of doubt. Here on the mountaintop, when you look back down, what are you proudest of?’

‘Proud?’ A metal face turned toward the sky. Her shoulders bounced and she laughed. The crowd followed awkwardly. Chuckling because this was their queen. As the crowd grew raucous with laughter, Melancholia fell silent. Then was a moment when the crowd seemed not to know what to do next.

‘Lock-in!’ Wright yelled. Again, a force sounded, this time locking Melancholia Bishop into the platform beneath her. The HMC* that she’d been speaking into flew up and behind her. The crowd let out a small gasp. To force-lock her, to silence her, on her freeing day. It was beneath them. A sudden force-lock was what you gave the despicable, the uninitiated, the unruly, the afraid. And so they turned their noses up at it, but turned them back down just as quickly to take in the history unfolding before them: the freeing of Melancholia Bishop.

‘Let’s deathmatch!’ Wright yelled.