Book Title: The Gauntlet Author: Karuna Riazi Number of pages: 298
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.?
Should this book be picked up? the tl;dr review:
– Middle Eastern Jumanji; board game with puzzles although present in third person re: readers may find difficulty in participating in the game too
– The culture and heritage of the characters just are and are not trivialized
– Challenges lack urgency and reads as though failure is rarely a possibility; some plot holes left unresolved
– Protagonist/heroine is one to look up to; a role model of wit and resourcefulness
– Lots of inclusion of food
I had so much excitement for this book yo.
Disclaimer: I received an ARC of The Gauntlet from Simon and Schuster Canada.
Could there have been a better pitch? Hard to say.
Although there are pockets within the narrative that could have been developed further (which I will surely discuss below), as self-contained story that sought to a) encapsulate an own voices, Middle-Eastern experience with young readers while providing b) a thrilling adventure in a mischievously playful world, I think The Gauntlet achieved a happy medium given its length.
My issue with the world building can be broken down into two concerns. From a visual standpoint, notwithstanding the challenges themselves, the steampunk elements in the Middle-Eastern backdrop felt like a lot of the same visuals in many scenes. And I don’t know if they are actually the same but it’s how it was portrayed to me. For example, the characters enter different palaces throughout but it was just that — a palace — with another world tacked on (e.g. Palace of Dreams) that didn’t really make a difference as to the base image itself re: palace. Was that the intent? I don’t know, I can only flag it.
Speaking to the actual challenges (see: games), I wasn’t really sure (?) or on-board with (?) the mechanics of each game. In terms of general framework, the game was visually there. But the “how” and “why” each game worked the way it did eluded me. Perhaps it’s something that, as a reader, I should reach outside of the book to explore. However, the need for context outside of the eventual winning leaves much to be desired for the gamer in me. They didn’t particularly have to strategize and there wasn’t much of an opposition stopping them from winning. Just needed a bit more oomph as they all weren’t games they played regularly that came second nature.
I should also add that there is so much inclusion of food (that characters actually eat) in The Gauntlet. It was wonderful.
Between some plot holes that ceased to be elaborated upon (re: the aunt storyline) and the challenges themselves which lacked the urgency and immediacy of failure, the otherwise great pacing and provocative ambiance of setting ultimately reads a bit watered down.
What’s great about the storytelling in The Gauntlet is that despite being presented through third person, the actual portrayal of the characters set against the setting is that the culture and heritage brought forth in this story is very much part of the lives of Farah et al. rather than being the sole definition of who they are and/or are tokens of having to be info-dumped. This might contradict my previous statement (re: challenges needing to be more fleshed out) but in this case I am speaking to everything known being normalized as is rather than new aspects needing to be developed further.
The downside with it being in third is that it misses out on the opportunity of the reader joining along with the puzzle solving (notwithstanding not actually knowing the game itself) that other puzzle/mystery driven stories offer.
The trio of Farah, Essie, and Alex, are ordinary heroes each able to carry their own weight and be of value when called upon. As the protagonist, Farah herself can probably be classed into the category of badass MG heroines as she unequivocally combats each task with candor, cunning wit, and resourcefulness that propels her and her friends into success and survival. Not much can be said about the other side-characters though as they’re merely there to push the plot along (sometimes even Essie/Alex fulfilled this role too).
To be completely transparent, I found difficulty believing Ahmad (Farah’s itty bitty brother) as a point of conflict in this story. I am compelled to think though his wanderlust and becoming engrossed in everything new and fun within the Gauntlet is plausible given his ADHD, the quick advancement of him in the world leaves a lot to be questioned. Because this is a large part of the plot: Ahmad is quickly and effortless frolicking through the Game with Farah having to find him. The difficulty is that because we don’t actually get his viewpoint, his adventure through the gritty world of clockwork, plush draperies, and ornate buildings lacks plausibility even if his behaviour would suggest so. I would argue that because there was so much food and entertainment keeping occupants in this world busy, he would be staggering through than speed-rushing through the game/world. Not to mention that there are factions of those who want to assist new players of The Gauntlet from succeeding that any new face would raise questions and Farah’s cry for assistance from others would be met with a wider collaborative effort.
As one of my highly anticipated [MG] releases of 2017, Karuna Riazi’s The Gauntlet both hit the mark for being a nostalgic and adventurous tale but let me down in terms of its delivery. I would still recommend this book though, if not for the game than for all the wondrous and mouth-watering food. Because food.