Review: The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi

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Published: 28 March 2017

Publisher: Salaam Reads

Category: Middle Grade/Fantasy/Steampunk

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?

Rating: 5 Stars

Legends of the Hidden Temple was one of my favorite game shows as a child and Jumanji was one of my favorite picture books. Both of these came to mind when I saw the cover and heard the synopsis for The Gauntlet, a novel in which Farah and her friends must rescue Farah’s little brother from the clutches of an insidious mechanical board game.

The visuals in this novel were amazing. There were terms I wasn’t wholly familiar with, particularly with regards to Farah and her family’s traditional clothing such as a salwar kameez, but a quick Google search helped me put these images into my mind and helped me visualize an even more beautiful story. I liked learning the different Bangladeshi terms for family as I read as well; Karuna Riazi made it easy to pick these up and learn how important these family members were to the main character, Farah.

The intricate details that described the buildings, the mosques and the minarets, the archways, were exquisite. Added to these mental images were the scents of the various foods and perfumes: the jasmine and bougainvillea on the third level of Paheli, the cinnamon, chili, clove, and roasted meat of the souk (an Arab marketplace, in this case within the Gauntlet). This attention to detail by the author made the world of the novel come even more to life and made my mouth water as well as my nose prickle with the mere thought of these scents.

Farah and her family were well introduced and fleshed out. They were introduced as a large and loving family, well versed in a great many board games. I envy that kind of closeness. At the beginning of the novel, Farah is at her birthday party, the first in her new home, and is celebrating with her two best friends from the old neighborhood and a crowd of unfamiliar faces. I was glad that these friends, while they didn’t have much characterization to them at first, began to open up once the game, The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand, made its move and presented itself to them.

The care for Ahmad was obvious and it was felt from the very first moment he was introduced. Farah talks about him, his ADHD, and what this means for her and her parents. It was easy to see how easily Farah could have been made into the kind of character that would lash out and resent her baby brother for needing more, but I never felt that in this case. She was an incredibly caring sibling that did everything in her power to make sure he was alright, including going into the Gaunlet to save him.

The pacing for this book impressed me because I’ve been finding a lot of books where I thought that, due to their adventure book nature, would be fast paced but ended up dragging and being boring. I did not experience this feeling with The Gauntlet and found it easy to breeze through it. It didn’t take long for the game to suck the participants in and, then, for the children to find the challenges and whatever allies or enemies lay in wait for them within the game.

I liked the little allusion to Labyrinth that Karuna Riazi included in this book, considering that The Gauntlet has at least a little in common (little brothers being whisked away to lands from which their sisters must rescue them) with this classic 80’s film:

For a second, Farah thought his disappearing wouldn’t be such a bad thing: calling down a goblin king to whisk him off into the deep, dark depths of a fairy labyrinth…

 This is a middle grade book, but I never felt like it would only be enjoyed by that target audience. I think that the adventure, the detail, the characters, all were written well enough to be enjoyed by readers of all ages. There may be some people that won’t enjoy it for whatever reason, but I don’t think it will be their age that gets in the way. If you’re looking for a good book to get lost in for awhile, whether it takes you a few hours or a few days to read, The Gauntlet is a stunning debut by Karuna Riazi that is a great addition to the literary world and hopefully means we will have more to look forward to from this author soon.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

All pictures, quotes, and videos belong to their respective owners. I use them here solely for the purpose of review and commentary.
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