Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi

Moving from Queens to the Upper East Side of Manhattan has been a hard adjustment for Bangladeshi American Farah Mirza.  She is the only Muslim girl in her school, and she misses her best friends Alex and Essie. Now, it’s Farah’s 12th birthday and Alex and Essie are at her house, but things feel very strained. But when Aunt Zohar tells Farah that her present is in another room, her little brother Ahmad, 7, beats her to the gift. Ahmad has ADHD and is accustomed to getting whatever he wants and Farah has to let him win all games that they play together. When the gift turns out to be what looks like a sophisticated game called The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand, Ahmad is banished from the room and Farah, Alex, and Essie begin to play. 

The game commences when players utter the words “We are ready for the Gauntlet.” To Farah’s dismay, Ahmad has snuck back in her room and, when he says those words, he is transported into the game. Realizing she must get her brother back, Farah and her friends quickly say the same words that transport them to the city of Paheli a world of sand storms, of stunning palaces, a glowing minaret in the center, and a busy marketplace or souk, in which they will play the game. 

The idea of the game is that they must win all three challenges they are faced with and destroy Paheli; lose even one challenge and they must remain in Paheli until future gamers attempt the challenges. The first person they meet is Madame Nasirah, the gamekeeper, whose job it is to help and guide players. She gives them several items to help the along: a three dimensional map that never gives the same images twice, a magical hour glass that times each challenge, money tokens, a talisman that is a set of intertwining rings, and the knowledge that if they lose a challenge, they may never see home again. 

Farah’s main interest is, of course, to find Ahmad, who is too young to play the game, and who is only an image on the ever changing map that keeps proving to be a distraction controlled by the Architect, the game master.

As they play the game, Farah, Alex, and Essie run into all kind of imaginative obstacles. It seems the Architect isn’t above cheating, but they also meet some very helpful, very large lizards headed by Henrietta Peel and her League of Extraordinary Resistance, and an old friend of Aunt Zohar’s, as well as the fearsome enemy Sand Police. 

But can these three experienced board gamers win all the challenges set before them, find Ahmad and return home after destroying Paheli?

There is nothing quite a entertaining and fun than a rousing board game played by players who really enjoy the challenge. I find board games so much more exciting than video games. And in The Gauntlet, I personally found the descriptions of all the action so clear and easy to imagine, I almost felt like a player myself. Plus, I could practically hear the sounds of the busy souk, taste the chai that Madame Nasirah served Farah, Alex, and Essie, and the wonderful smells coming from Farah’s mother’s kitchen made my mouth water. 

Riazi incorporated lots of Farah’s Bangladeshi culture into The Gauntlet, and although Farah wears her hijab throughout the novel, but it is just a part of who she is. What I could have totally lived without is Ahmad. I really feel the story could have worked without him. Fortunately, he is not present for much of the novel. On the other hand, I did love finding out who the Architect is and was completely surprised by it.

And I laughed when I saw the name Paheli. In the novel, it is described as a riddle, a question that needs to be answered. I knew the word from my Kiddo's love of Bollywood movies. 

This is Riazi’s debut middle grade novel and she has really created a winning fantasy. Her world building is spot on, and her characters totally believable (yeah, I had a younger brother who always had to win, too), and the adventures and challenges she sends them on are real nail-baiters, but make for solid fantasy.  

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

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