Described as “steampunk Jumanji with a Middle Eastern flair,” The Gauntlet is a fun, fantasy middle grade/young adult fiction within Simon and Schuster’s new Salaam Reads imprint. I was looking forward to it since I first heard about Salaam Reads books for Muslim children by Muslim authors, and I’m happy to report that the final book did not disappoint.
During Farah’s twelfth birthday party, she and her friends Alex and Essie discover a mysterious board game in Farah’s bedroom. Due in part to the mischief of Farah’s younger brother Ahmed, Farah and her friends find themselves diving deep into the world of the game, on a mission to find Ahmed and take him home.
I love the world-building in The Gauntlet, and how the world of the boardgame, unlike the chaotic jungle of Jumanji, feels almost clock-like in its mechanical precision. There’s a logic to the challenges being offered, and to the way the players must navigate the world, but there’s also an urgent race against time, as each puzzle comes with a finite amount of sand in an hourglass within which the puzzle must be completed. The story felt very much like a video game — one challenge involving characters having to throw items from platforms before the platforms disappear, and as a reader, it’s almost a breathless experience just to get through that chapter.
I also love the Middle Eastern and South Asian elements in the story. For example, Farah and her family are Bangladeshi, and there’s a lot of descriptions of South Asian desserts that her mother makes for the party. Within the game itself, one of the challenges even involves South Asian delicacies, none of which I think I’ve ever tried, but am now very eager to taste. Farah and her friends also talk a lot about evil mischief being caused by djinn, and this has a heavy influence on the game.
Within all the action and excitement, there’s a lot of heart in this story. Farah’s love for her brother clearly drives her throughout her adventures, and Alex and Essie’s love for Farah keeps them fiercely loyal throughout the game. Even the origins of the game itself is rooted in love, and we see the tragedy in how the best intentions can be twisted into something dangerous.
The Gauntlet is such a fantastic book. It’s written for younger readers but will appeal to older readers as well. Also, how awesome is it that the main character wears a hijab, and that this is not just displayed on the cover, it is also brought up in the story itself?
Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.