The Gauntlet

  • The Gauntlet
  • written by Karuna Riazi
  • published by Salaam Reads / Simon & Schuster (2017)
  • Roar Score: 3/5

“Win and destroy the game, lose and be stuck in it forever.” Descriptions of Karuna Riazi’s debut novel The Gauntlet will naturally draw comparisons to Chris Van Allsburg’s classic Jumanji, which is only to be expected. Both are about board games that magically trap players in a dangerous, high-stakes world created within the confines of the game.

Riazi’s book, though, is free to explore the ramifications of what that experience might really be like – something Van Allsburg’s picture book couldn’t do in as much depth with a mere 32 pages.

Farah Mirza is 12 years old, and games are a standard in her family. But when a mysterious board game shows up during her birthday party, she assumes it’s a gift from her aunt. The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand.

Something seems a little…off about it, but she and her friends decide to crack it open and give it a go. And that’s when things start to go south.

She wanted to say Shouldn’t we be scared? Because Farah definitely was. There was a giant lantern in the bedroom with an entire world within it. She’d seen a game magically grow ten times its size. She was holding a tiny doll that resembled her.

Farah, her brother (whom she must rescue), and two friends become trapped inside the game, which is actually an entire city – Paheli. They must solve a series of tasks in order to win the game and escape Paheli. If they lose, they’re stuck there forever. They can never escape to the real world.

The Gauntlet is one of the debut titles in Simon & Schuster’s Salaam Reads imprint, which “aims to introduce readers of all faiths and backgrounds to a wide variety of Muslim children and families and offer Muslim kids an opportunity to see themselves reflected positively in published works.” (See here for our review of Amina’s Voice, another of Salaam Reads’ launch titles.)

Farah lives in New York in a Bangladeshi family. Her cultural background factors in to the story, but this is hardly “the story of a Muslim Bangladeshi girl going on an adventure.” It’s simply “the story of a girl going on an adventure.” Her heritage informs who she is and allows her to relate to the city of Paheli, which has strong Muslim and South Indian influences – both architecturally and culturally.

In short, this isn’t just a book for Muslim or Bangladeshi kids. This is a book for all kids who live in this world. Farah’s story is one to which any young reader can relate. Save her brother, solve the puzzles, work together with her friends, and escape in one piece.

The Gauntlet, however, does have deeper meanings, though it doesn’t dwell on them. Keen young readers will note the themes of friendship, acceptance, and moving beyond first (uninformed) impressions.

“Practical” didn’t mean “suspicious.” “Pragmatic” didn’t mean looking at someone and assuming that they were a foe before they were a friend. That was what had happened to her, back home, back where her scarf and her skin weren’t so common, and her name was decidedly not an English one.

In Paheli, nothing is truly as it seems. Friends might initially appear as enemies, and vice versa. It’s hard to know who to trust, who’s helping you succeed, and who might be dangerous. Obviously, the same can be said for the real world. And that’s the lesson at the heart of The Gauntlet.

It might be easy to judge books by their covers, but we shouldn’t. It might be easy to succumb to stereotypes and view those different from ourselves with suspicion, but we shouldn’t. It might be easy to believe that everyone is out to get you. But that’s just not the case.

Kids are all too often taught to fear the world around them. And while a healthy dose of skepticism and caution is healthy, an overwhelming sense of distrust and dread is most certainly not. Especially when it comes to people with whom we might not have very much in common.

A little bit of trust and belief in the greater good of humanity can go a long way.

The Gauntlet is a fun adventure filled with surprise twists, memorable characters, and a rich cultural context that rounds out the world.

We only presume that monsters lurk in the shadows. Sometimes, though, we discover friends in what we assume will be foes.

(Disclosure: Simon & Schuster provided me with a review copy of this book. All opinions remain my own.)

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