The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi is an #OwnVoices Islamic and #OwnVoices Southwest Asian, middle-grade portal fantasy novel that was released in 2017 via Salaam Reads. It’s about a young girl named Farah who receives a strange board game from her aunt on her birthday. But when her brother accidentally gets sucked into it, she teams up with her two best friends and embarks on a journey to try and finish the game so that she can save her family from gloom and doom.
The Gauntlet was a book that I ended up reading twice. The first time I read it was back in May, and the second time was during June. Honestly, while I loved certain elements, overall, I didn’t care for it during my first through and I think the reason for that is because I made the mistake of picking it up when I simply wasn’t in the mood for a middle-grade narrative, nor an adventurous one. However, in June I got this really random and intense yearning to return to Farah’s story, so I decided to re-read it while the mood was hot. This book is the perfect example of why reading to fit one’s mood (if you’re a moody reader) is so damn important because a simple case of right book wrong time can lead someone to disliking a novel they would otherwise positively adore!
Another thing that I have learned, specifically this year in 2019, is to train myself to read certain books from the lens of the audience for which that they are intended. While this seems like a total common-sense sort of thought process, it’s amazing how unnatural it can be, especially for long-term readers who’ve never considered what specific classifications—such as adult, young adult, and middle-grade—can mean for a book’s overall enjoyment and narrative style. Ever since I began to read young adult books for teens and early 20 folks, and consume middle-grade for youngsters, my experiences with these types of books have skyrocketed immensely, as well as my appreciation and gratitude for the stories being told. Yay to evolving as a bibliophile and as a content creator! Wooooot.
With all of that being said, The Gauntlet is an exceptional novel that I wish with all of my heart and soul that I had as a brown-skinned Muslima kid. It is exactly the type of fairy tale that I craved when I was between the ages of eleven and thirteen, but never ever received. Between it’s positive depictions of friendships, the plethora of adventurous escapading, and how unapologetically Islamic it is with it’s cultural influences, the food, and the awesome hijabi heroine—I’m floored, chums. Positively fricking floored. It’s brilliant.
The author has crafted magic with her beautifully woven tapestry of Islamic and Southwest Asian facets into a setting that is wondrously infused with steampunk and unpredictable adventure. I could feel the sand on my skin, in my hair, and even getting suckered into my mouth with every breath. The food made my mouth water so much, I’m sure I drooled a tiny bit on my cat (sorry not sorry, Kheb). The fear that the characters felt, either from having to face some scary creatures or merely from being way too high up on a ledge was authentic and sweeping. The entire time I was reading, I felt like I was watching a film rather than reading a book. In the midst of each little scene or situation was this big picture and this panoptic essence is what truly drew me in, strapping me down for a thrill ride.
Aside from the amazing world-building and atmosphere, we have marvellous characters. The main character, Farah, wears a hijab, and the absolute best part about it (aside from her being the heroine I’ve craved for my entire life) is that she’s never traumatised for wearing a hijab. It’s just a natural part of her identity and who she is as a person. It’s so refreshing to read about marginalised characters who aren’t being treated inhumanely and are merely existing and doing their own thing. Even if that thing happens to be getting tornadoed into a board game to save their annoying little brother.
Her friends are also quite different from one another and different from Farah, yet the things that set them apart is what makes them such a great team as well, and their chemistry is so natural and inspiring. Friends will bicker. This happens with any humans we share spaces with, especially the ones we love the most. So seeing them have mild disagreements on how to proceed at certain parts of the plot was a quality I appreciated quite a bit. Plus, it was quite amusing depending on the scenario. But their friendship became stronger than it was due to their experiences and I think it helped them understand one another even better. My heart melts.
Another trait that I felt was quite clever, especially for middle-grade readers, is the logical aspect to the puzzles that the characters had to solve in order to progress with their journey. As a kid, I remember I sought out books that had characteristics akin to brain teasers. I wanted to be challenged and to learn. I was thirsty for knowledge and pushing my brain to its limits. The Gauntlet is a sort of brain teaser for kids but told via the lens of an adventure story. It works to help train and mould young minds to use the more logic-centric parts of the brain without it being boring, confusing, or overwhelming. When I was younger, teachers suggested video games as a way for my brain to adapt to being able to learn and process shtick so quickly. The Gauntlet is just like a video game of sorts, but in book form. How amazing is that?
Amid these three main components that were my favourites, other stuff you get from The Gauntlet include positive representation of being afraid and how fear is an important precursor to being brave; also that fear doesn’t make a person any less heroic. It shows that girls are just as (if not more so) super smart, witty, and courageous than anyone else out there. There are also positive exhibitions of family togetherness that was very cute.
If there are any shortcomings that come to mind with The Gauntlet, I believe it shall be that the last one-quarter can feel like it drags a little bit. But older readers will feel this much more than youngsters. Also, the story can be mildly predictable for older readers as well, however that doesn’t really detract from the enjoyment of it at all.
Overall, The Gauntlet is an excellent #OwnVoices novel that’s proudly Islamic, showing a brown-skinned, hijabi girl being a total rump-kicker. It’s an easy-to-read tale with marvellous world-building, fluffy friendships, and fantastical quests. I highly recommend this to children who prefer stories with adventures in them, and to readers of all ages who find pleasure in diverse middle-grade and young adults portal fantasies.