Title: The Gauntlet
Author: Karuna Riazi
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Published: March 28th 2017
A trio of friends from New York City find themselves trapped inside a mechanical board game that they must dismantle in order to save themselves and generations of other children in this action-packed debut that’s a steampunk Jumanji with a Middle Eastern flair.
When twelve-year-old Farah and her two best friends get sucked into a mechanical board game called The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand—a puzzle game akin to a large Rubik’s cube—they know it’s up to them to defeat the game’s diabolical architect in order to save themselves and those who are trapped inside, including her baby brother Ahmed. But first they have to figure out how.
Under the tutelage of a lizard guide named Henrietta Peel and an aeronaut Vijay, the Farah and her friends battle camel spiders, red scorpions, grease monkeys, and sand cats as they prepare to face off with the maniacal Lord Amari, the man behind the machine. Can they defeat Amari at his own game…or will they, like the children who came before them, become cogs in the machine?
The Gauntlet was such a delight to read from start to finish. Though I am way past the intended audience for this Middle Grade fantasy, I so wish I had a book like this when I was younger! It makes me happy to know that a publishing house as established as Simon and Schuster chose to publish a book about a Bangladeshi-American Muslim girl. Representation really is everything.
The book follows eleven-year-old Farah Mirza who, on her twelfth birthday, gets sucked into a board game in an attempt to rescue her brother, Ahmed. The world that Farah and her friends enter is the Middle-Eastern inspired city of Paheli and Riazi’s description of the setting is so vivid, with just enough description to make the reader feel as if they are standing there alongside the trio. Whilst the setting will want to make you go on holiday, the food will most definitely make you hungry, particularly near the end of the novel where I started dreaming about jalebis before the word itself was even mentioned.
The pacing was also fast, which was definitely a positive, but at times I thought it was just a little too fast. The challenges Farah, Essie and Alex needed to complete to win the game were essentially supposed to be life and death situations, but there was very little conflict and each challenge was over within a couple of pages. The synopsis mentions ‘camel spiders, red scorpions, grease monkeys and sand cats’ but I honestly can’t remember encountering any of these because that’s how little they appeared in the book.
Otherwise, I enjoyed everything about this. The occasional flashbacks of Farah’s visits to Bangladesh made me reminisce, especially at the mention of ‘tiktikis’ which are common house geckos that tick-tick-tick. The jinn stories were actually quite terrifying to the point where I had to question whether the book was appropriate for Middle Grade readers after all, but I loved how jinns were integrated into the story and world-building overall. And the characters were such a delight, both within and outside the boardgame; from Madame Nasirah to Henrietta Peel and Vijay to Aunt Zohra and Farah’s Ma (who at the conclusion of the novel chases someone around the house with a mop.)
I’m so happy this book exists and I’m so happy I came across it. Because it’s not just twelve year-old Bangladeshi-Muslim girls in the world who will see a friend, a sister or themselves in Farah. It’s also people like me, who grew up during a time where representation in books just didn’t matter. I’m glad that’s changing.