Title: The Gauntlet
Author: Karuna Riazi
Publication Date: March 28, 2017
Publisher: Salaam Reads
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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?
Farah and her brother Ahmed love to play games. Any and all games. The only problem is that Farah always has to let Ahmed win. So when she gets an opportunity to play a new, mysterious game, The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand, with her friends (and without Ahmed), Farah jumps at the chance without thinking. Her hasty decision causes some problems, however, and soon Farah and her friends find themselves trapped inside the game. They have to beat the game if they ever want to be free again. And they have to save Ahmed, who got himself trapped as well. Oh, and there's one more little problem...no one has ever beaten the Gauntlet.
When I first picked up The Gauntlet, I was really excited. The comparison to the story of Jumanji caught my eye and I was excited for the Middle Eastern representation in a Middle Grade story. But ultimately, I was really disappointed in The Gauntlet. The story had a lot of potential, but it fell very flat. I should include a disclaimer, however - I read the ARC and it was about 300 pages long, but on Goodreads the book is listed as 384 pages. It is very possible that a lot has changed and developed between the ARC and the finished copy, but I have to write this review based on what I read.
The characters were....ok. They weren't awful, but they weren't spectacular either. I didn't end up feeling any kind of connection to them at all. Ahmed was really annoying. Yes, he had ADHD, so I understand that the author was trying to represent that properly. But his entire family let him win every game they played with him to keep him happy. And every time someone received a gift, they gave one to Ahmed too, so he didn't get jealous and throw a tantrum. The result of all these things was that Ahmed became a seriously obnoxious brat. I almost decided not to finish the book very early on because he was SO ANNOYING. There were also some inconsistencies with some character traits that I think prevented me from really connecting with the characters. For example, Farah's friend Alex is terrified of heights. Yet, when he is granted a wish, he wishes to fly. Things like this left me confused and kept me from gaining an understanding for the characters.
The plot itself was fun and had a lot of potential, but it fell pretty flat. Especially in a Middle Grade work with Middle Eastern influences, I was expecting the author to use the opportunity to teach kids about other cultures. There were a lot of things that were glossed over, so I was left wondering what they were talking about. Even as an adult, I would have loved to get lost in the Middle Eastern culture, but barely anything was explained or expanded upon. I can foresee a lot of kids getting confused while reading this. Again, perhaps there was more description included in the final copy, but I can't say that for certain.
Ultimately, I ended up being extremely disappointed in The Gauntlet. There were many times that I almost put it down and decided not to finish it. I almost wish I had done that because the book never got better and left me wishing I had spent that time reading something I would enjoy more. I am so sad that I didn’t like this book, because it had such great potential and represents an important step forward in Middle Grade literature. Unfortunately, I wish it had been handled better. I am rarely ever disappointed by Middle Grade books, but The Gauntlet had too many problems for me to ignore.