Review of The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi
by Karuna Riazi
I won a copy of The Gauntlet in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway.
Farah Mirza is a gamer from a family of gamers. The Mirzas love all sorts of tabletop games, card games, and puzzles. On her twelfth birthday, she mistakenly receives the Gauntlet, a malevolent and self-aware board game. When her younger brother, Ahmad, gets trapped inside the game, Farah and her two friends have no choice but to enter the game themselves and beat it in order to retrieve Ahmad and exit. But the Gauntlet has not played in over twenty years, and its Architect is … hungry.
I tried hard to put myself into a middle grade mindset for this one. My reading for younger audiences skews almost exclusively towards the older end of YA, partly because that’s the age group I’d teach if I were in a regular high school and because those are the stories that most appeal to me. Middle grade novels, of course, can often have simpler or at least less subtle structures and subtexts because they’re appealing to a younger demographic. While that’s definitely the case here, I think Riazi does a fantastic job telling a tale that will hold the interest of older readers as well. I can easily see a teenager or adult enjoying this (I did), and it’s the kind of story I could see a parent reading out loud to or with a child who is on the younger end of this audience.
The plot is an intense and fast-paced one. Structured around the three challenges that Farah, Essie, and Alex must win in order to defeat the Architect, Riazi gives neither her characters nor readers much time to breath as they rush all over the city of Paheli. Yet the challenges themselves take up little enough of the book (if anything, they feel rushed). In the intervals Riazi creates a dazzling environment for the Gauntlet: a dream-like, shifting fantasy city that would be marvellous if it weren’t out to get the players. The talking lizards are cool, though.
Farah shines as The Gauntlet’s protagonist. She’s 12, that impossible age that straddles childhood and adolescence. Riazi explores this without making it too big of a deal, mentioning how Farah is feeling awkward around her friend Essie because she worries board games might be too childish, and of course, exploring Farah’s changing relationship with Ahmad. This is a tall order to accomplish in a book that takes place, essentially, over the space of 24 hours, but I like what Riazi does here. Farah is clever, cunning, and courageous; these qualities allow her to excel at games and hence at the Gauntlet.
I wish the other characters had more prominence. Although individual personality elements shine through—Essie is the impetuous one, Alex the more reluctant but analytical one—they lack defining moments that let them become heroic figures in their own right. Farah shoulders most of the story here, with Alex and Essie serving as her foils, as comic relief, or just plain sidekicks.
The Gauntlet is receiving lots of attention for its Muslim cast of characters. Farah is a hijaabi and comments early on in the novel how, her family having moved to Manhattan, she feels out of place in a way she didn’t in Queens. This is an interesting observation for someone like me, who is neither Muslim nor female nor a resident of a metropolis so big it gets boroughs. I’m sure Muslim children, or children of Bangladeshi descent, will enjoy having a character who looks like them and comes from their cultural background as the hero of a story.
What you might not pick up on from the publicity, though, is the way Riazi casually normalizes the names of games, food, etc., that will be unfamiliar to most Western readers. They don’t even show up in italics, and although Riazi does an excellent job describing the various desserts and confections these names often correspond to, you’re best off Googling them so your mouth can water at their appearance. This is refreshing, because while it seems like books are making strides in terms of character representation, the cultures of those characters are often sprinkled in like some kind of exotic language layered atop English. In The Gauntlet, they are simply part of the Mirza household, just like Monopoly or marbles.
The Gauntlet is equal parts exciting and enchanting. It has a lot of moving elements that come together to create a great story. Its characters are not as dynamic or interesting as I’d like—but I’m not a regular reader of middle grade, so I’m not sure how much that’s par for the course. I’m having a hard time figuring out who wouldn’t enjoy this book, though. Older readers might find it a little lighter, certainly a much quicker read, but at the end of the day it’s the kind of story that any person can kick back and immerse themselves in for a few hours.