The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi

Hardcover, 298 pages
Published March 28th 2017 by Salaam Reads
Source: Purchased

I don’t quite know how to begin this review.

So that’s how I will begin it. Ha. When I feel too much for a book, I generally don’t like talking about it because I want to keep these feelings close to me. I have known Karuna for a while now and have been anticipating this book ever since I knew it existed. Not just because she is my friend and a wonderful writer but also because how important this book is and what its existence means.

First though, the synopsis of The Gauntlet: 

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 book opens at a gathering of relatives and friends (two of them) to celebrate Farah’s birthday. Farah has moved to a new place and is trying to settle into a new school, away from two of her closest friends. A new space has opened between them, a new strangeness that Farah doesn’t quite know how to smooth away. The atmosphere is filled with the smell of cooking food; there is mithai somewhere (in The Gauntlet, there’s always mithai somewhere).

When Ahmed jumps into the strange new board game that Farah’s aunt gifted her with and disappears, Farah and her friends have no choice but to follow him and bring him back. The synopsis tells you this but what it doesn’t express is the wonder of the world inside the game. The City of Paheli with its vibrant colours and desert storms. The souk, the sand, the movement, the tenor of a breathing place.

Karuna’s descriptions are wondrous and to me, they feel like looking into a mirror and seeing a familiar face looking back. I know someone like Madame Nasirah who is the game’s guide and who gives help to Farah, Alex, and Essie. She insists on feeding the children and that is such a familiar action from a character I am certain exists in my extended family. Our mothers/aunts always try to feed everyone they can.

The food as I have mentioned before is always present and always decadent and for me, so gloriously, familiar. I have talked before of reading about the high teas containing strange foods I can only read about in books. This was entirely different. In The Gauntlet I read about food that is familiar to me, food that I eat and also food I want to eat. Hah.

The pacing is on point. Farah and her friends have to complete certain challenges so there’s a wavelike motion in the pacing of the story. Momentum builds, the event happens, there is a lull and then the next event approaches and things repeat.

The relationships and the characters in The Gauntlet are also very well done. The friendship between Essie, Farah, and Alex is wonderfully portrayed. The kids have their own individual personalities and Karuna has illustrated this wonderfully in the little details. The relationship between Ahmed and Farah is perhaps the most complex one because Farah being the older sister feels responsibility for her younger brother but also a little bit of resentment. However, Ahmed pulls through in the end (to know what I mean by this you have to read the book).

Henrietta Peel, the very intelligent and intriguing lizard, was perhaps one of my favourite characters (it’s difficult to choose). Vijay is also intriguing and I reckon I would have like to read more of him and Aunt Zohra.

What most intrigued me about the novel is the climax. There is action, of course, but before that, curiously, there is a final challenge that shows the heart of the book. Rather than blood and duels, the antagonist and protagonist battle with their minds and their senses.

I could continue talking about this book but honestly, the most important thing I can say about it is: read it. Buy it for yourself, buy it for the child in your life. For some it will be a window into a strange new world, for others it will be a mirror which reflects shimmers of a life they didn’t expect to see in books. Diversity and the importance of representation aside, The Gauntlet tells a wonderful story of friendship and family. I strongly recommend it.