Karuna Riazi has already made a name for herself on social media; if you’ve seen or used the widely popular Twitter hashtag #yesallwomen, you have Riazi to thank for it, along with her many other meaningful contributions to conversations about diversity, inclusivity, and representation in media. This year, her debut middle-grade novel The Gauntlet (2017) was published, and it is every bit as positive, well-crafted, and insightful as her non-fiction.
Birthdays ought to be a big deal for any child, but twelve-year-old Farah Mirza spends hers playing games with her little brother, Ahmad, rather than spending time with her friends Alex and Essie, or the family members who have also gathered at her Upper East Side home to celebrate. It’s part of being a good big sister, like when she lets Ahmad win or is extra-careful to consider his struggles with ADHD. When Farah goes looking for birthday presents and opens a beautifully ornate wooden box, the board game hidden inside comes to life, revealing its name — The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand — and a deceptively simple set of instructions. Ahmad triggers the game by accident and is sucked inside, so it is up to Farah, Alex, and Essie to play them game to completion and rescue him from the horrors lurking within.
The Gauntlet itself is a terrifying, wind-swept and sand-strewn place, filled with intricate puzzles and riddles that must be unraveled. Its inhabitants are not guaranteed to be friendly, and systems are set in place in order to defeat the players at every opportunity. Farah and her friends each bring different qualities to the challenges before them; Alex is studious and quiet, while Essie is a whirlwind of self-confidence, but it’s Farah’s steadfast determination and familiarity with Bangladeshi traditions that are the key to understanding what The Gauntlet is and actually work toward the solution at its heart. She’s young and suitably immature, but her frustration with Ahmad’s childishness never takes precedence over her concern for his well-being, or their love for one another.
Riazi layers The Gauntlet with sensory details — the sensation of sand stuck in a shoe, the scent of a favorite treat, the way a favorite cup of tea can make a person feel comforted and safe — all of which build The Gauntlet and its sprawling city of Paheli into a rich, multi-layered world that would be deceptively easy to get stuck in. Her prose is elaborate without becoming overly purple, and seems tailor-made to be read aloud, particularly to an age-appropriate audience who are sure to shriek at the reanimated bones in the graveyard scene or marvel over the carnival exhibits. The stakes of The Gauntlet are quite high, but the scares are relatively low-level, with more emotional than physical damage sustained by Farah and her friends.
I’m woefully ignorant with regard to most aspects of Bangladeshi culture, so I was grateful for the balance Riazi strikes between context clues, outright explanation, and allowing the reader to fill in the blanks on their own. I would never have guessed that chenna murki is “soft, tender, marble-sized morsels of sweet cheese” (which sounds delicious), but it’s obvious that when Ahmad refers to “Farah apu,” it’s a term of endearment, and I could happily spend hours poring over photos of beautiful salwar kameez in every color combination imaginable.
Younger readers who are also unfamiliar with Bangladeshi terms or culture may need a little assistance, but the opportunities within The Gauntlet for broadening their horizons is tremendous and shouldn’t be overlooked. And, of course, readers who identify with Farah’s struggles, whether she’s at home among her family or when at school as the only hijaabi, will wear an extra-large smile while reading Karuna Riazi’s prose. I expect we’ll be hearing and reading much more from her in the future. Highly recommended.