Look! I’m actually reading books off of my Want to Read list for this year! This was one I found combing through Amazon’s middle grade pre-orders – a game-based fantasy starring a Muslim girl, from Simon & Schuster’s new Salaam Reads imprint.
The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi. Simon & Schuster Salaam Reads, 2017.
Farah is just turning 12, and her birthday is being rather spoiled both by her parents, who insisted she invite all the kids from her new class, even though she’s not friends with anyone. She’d much rather retreat to her bedroom and spend some time with her best friends from her old school, red-haired Essie and African-American Alex. They are also hiding from her 7-year-old brother Ahmed, whom Farah is expected to shield from ADHD-fueled temper tantrums by giving him his way in everything, including losing all games to him. But just as the friends are setting up the intriguing new board game her beloved aunt has given her, Ahmed bursts in. He hears the words they have to say to start the game, says them, and is in the game. Now Farah and her friends, previously a little freaked out by a game that rattled and moved on its own, must venture into the game to save him. Paheli is a world of glass cubes, gears, and sand, which rebuilds itself regularly at the whim of the Architect. It’s filled with people who have previously played and failed to successfully complete the game – some of whom may try to help the kids, some to hinder them, and none of whom can be trusted.
The basic plot here has strong echoes of the classic Jumanji. It’s been done before, although the South Asian feel of Paheli is a fresh twist and the adventure is still fun. I definitely enjoyed getting to know Farah and her culture and daily challenges, and her friends seemed reasonably fleshed out characters as well. The biggest problem I had was with Farah’s parents’ parenting strategies, which mostly seemed to boil down to making Farah appease Ahmed. (At the same time, I hope I manage things better for my own twelve-year-old dealing with a seven-year-old younger sibling.) Ahmed was such an unpleasant character that I had to agree with Ms. Yingling – I couldn’t really see a reason that Farah would want to put her life at risk for him. It’s hard to beat Terry Pratchett in The Wee Free Men, of course – Tiffany Aching’s attitude that Wentworth might be an annoying little brother, but he’s her annoying little brother and no one else is going to take him put things in a way that I did buy into. Overall, though, this is a good book to give to kids looking for an exciting fantasy adventure, while at the same time providing a much-needed mirror or window (depending on the kid) to a modern Muslim-American family. I’ll be looking for more both from Karuna Riazi and Salaam Reads.