The Gauntlet is Karuna Riazi’s debut middle-grade novel from the Salaam Reads imprint of Simon and Schuster. I won an autographed (!!!) copy of this book from a giveaway earlier this summer by the Chapter One Young Writers Conference, and it’s one of the loveliest middle grade stories I’ve read this year.
It’s Farah Mirza’s twelfth birthday, and in addition to celebrating with her friends Essie and Alex, she must also watch over her hyperactive younger brother Ahmad. Her visiting aunt, Zohra, mysteriously promises to give her a present after the party, but Ahmad can’t wait.
Before the kids can stop him, Ahmad helps himself to a package in the Mirza’s guest room where Auntie Zohra is staying, which contains a peculiar game called the Gauntlet, which turns out to be extremely captivating … literally.
In this respect, The Gauntlet has been likened to Jumanji, but it’s really an inversion of that classic story: instead of the contents of an unruly game (and, in the 1995 movie’s case, its last unfortunate player) getting sucked out of the board, Farah and friends get sucked into the Gauntlet. It’s up to Farah, Essie, and Alex to complete the game’s series of complex challenges and rescue Ahmad, or else they will all be stuck inside forever!
The story is fast-paced, incredibly suspenseful, and delightfully unpredictable. There are some surprising steampunk elements mixed with enchanting, descriptive imagery of the Gauntlet’s many levels and locales. Plus, each of the young leads is relatable in some way. Essie and Madame Nasirah are probably my favorite characters, mostly because we each share a passion for cooking and enjoying delicious, savory Middle Eastern foods. Plus, I think Farah is a strong, independent protagonist who’s bound to inspire today’s generation of young girls and boys to be themselves and get stuff done.
As I was reading the story’s early parts, I couldn’t help but smile and think, This is the sort of well-written children’s adventure book I’m going to read to my little ones before bedtime. But when I got to the part where Farah, Essie, and Alex encounter a particularly menacing ghoul and his band of reanimated skeleton fragments, I had to rethink the specific time of day when I hope to read this story to my future kids! At my age, those graphic depictions didn’t phase me terribly, but I can see how it might be nightmare-inducing to younger readers. It’s just something to keep in mind.
One of the things I really liked about The Gauntlet is that it’s not a teach-y sort of book in the way it positively represents Farah’s Middle Eastern heritage. It infrequently references foods, clothing, honorifics, and other element that are likely unfamiliar to most readers, without going out of its way to explain to us what they are. Some things were easy to figure out given the context, but this book encouraged me to go look up these things for myself and learn a little more about another culture in the process.