I want to begin with I really, really wanted to like Karuna Riazi’s The Gauntlet. I first bought it a couple of years ago based on this review and I’ve read it a couple of times since then. The concept sounds amazing: Sucked into a board game with your two best friends? Having to save your younger brother by beating the sadistic game master at his own games?
And so, when the story fell flat for me despite the amazing concept, I had to figure out why. In this review, I’ll be starting with the things I loved and working my way down to what didn’t work – and yes, there are spoilers. If you want an overall impression, I would rank it 3/5 stars, with a big sad face because I wish I could rank it higher.
- The Setting
This is my favorite part of the book, and why I honestly would still recommend it even with only a 3/5 star ranking. Steampunk with a Middle Eastern twist (or Bengali twist would be more accurate to say, I suppose, since the author is Bengali). The characters must endure fierce sandstorms and navigate crowded souks in a world that feels fiercely original. Even though the characters were only average in my opinion, the setting alone would have led me to give this book a higher rating – if the author had managed to carry the plot. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
What kinda worked
- The Characters
I enjoyed Farah as a main character. Well-written, solid, and several of her friends and people that she ran into are good as well. Her brother Ahmad, who she’s trying to save…not so much. The author obviously meant to show him as a brat, and she succeeded – sadly, perhaps a bit too much. The sequel to the Gauntlet features Ahmad as a main character, and I admit that the only reason I haven’t bought book 2 is because of my extreme dislike of him in book 1. However, despite how annoying he is, Farah still loves him – and I love that. I’m always looking for loving sibling relationships in books, and I think Farah and Ahmad’s relationship is a great example of how you can dislike your sibling as a person but love them anyway.
While most of the characters were good, the adult characters were…overdramatized. I get that when you’re writing a middle grade book, you want your main characters to be the ones to take action – you don’t want your adults to step in and solve the problem. However, that doesn’t mean you need to write your adults like kids. I admit, this is one of my absolute least favorite tropes in MG/YA, and I really appreciate it when books such as Shannon Messenger’s Keeper of the Lost Cities are able to balance letting adults be adults and still retain having an active child protagonist.
- The Writing
Have you ever read something and thought “my English teacher would put a smiley face next to that”? I had several of those moments while reading this book, such as when she gets the chance to drink moonlight and it “tastes lonely.” This is an absolutely gorgeous piece of imagery, and it didn’t fit with the rest of the writing style and drew me out of the story. Honestly, I think it’s because Riazi is a newer writer and still trying to find her voice as an author. Once she is able to incorporate such descriptions smoothly, her writing will jump to another level entirely – but as it was, it was a bit clunky. Of course, writing style is mostly a matter of taste, so I wouldn’t let your decision on whether or not to read this book be swayed by my opinion of the style.
What didn’t work
- The plot
This is where the book fell flat for me and actually…became a bit boring. Perhaps my expectations were simply too high – I’ll try to walk through my reasoning so you can make your own decision.
The plot is designed around multiple games (three) that the main characters must win in order to escape the board game world. We’re told at the beginning that practically no one manages to win and escape – in fact, many of the world’s occupants are past players who failed. With this set-up, I’m expecting to see our characters’ creativity stretched to their limits as they barely manage to win each game. I’m expecting to see a Kobayashi Maru situation, where the game master twists the rules so only he can win, but the characters somehow manage to find a loophole anyway and beat him at his own game.
And that is not what happened.
What happened is a series of games with beautiful and fascinating settings, but unfolded… absolutely as expected. They didn’t require any creativity to win. They barely required any strategy. And they certainly didn’t test our characters.
As an example, take the game of Mancala that our characters played. Specifically, giant Mancala, where the holes are big enough to fall into and are filled with bones. Terrifying, interesting aesthetic? Yes. But how do our characters win? They win by citing a rule that makes their opponent throw a fit because he didn’t know about it – a rule that isn’t even particularly obscure, because that’s how my family played Mancala all the time growing up. (In fact, we played Mancala enough that by the time I was eleven, I had found a way to win as long as I was the first player to go.) In other words, the only reason our characters win is because their opponent was stupid. And how is it that hundreds of people got trapped in this world again?
Then we go to the very last game. (Spoiler warning!) Here we have a spike of tension because the gamemaster has changed the rules – our characters have already won three games, but he says they can’t leave until Farah beats him at one last contest. Get this: It’s a dessert-naming competition.
Essentially, both characters are blind-folded, must take a bite of a dessert, and guess what it is. They have to do this three times, and Farah and her friends will only be allowed to leave if she wins.
As a writer, this choice baffles me. It doesn’t show how much Farah has grown over the course of the book, it doesn’t stretch her intellect or her ability to get along with her brother, it doesn’t even challenge the audience as there aren’t any clues for them to try to guess the answer before Farah does. The tension is supposed to be increased because we know that Farah doesn’t like sweets, but…so what? At the very last sweet, she has a sudden mind-blank and can’t remember what it’s called. Then she suddenly remembers.
Because…trying hard to remember something is a skill? Maybe you’ll disagree but – No, no it isn’t.
This contest was perhaps the most disappointing way possible to end the book. There was nothing Farah could have done to make her chances any better or worse at naming desserts – either she knew them, or she didn’t. The contest failed to show us how she grew.
Honestly, I shouldn’t have been surprised based on the disappointing conclusions of the other contests, but I had been holding out hope that the book would redeem itself in the end. It didn’t.
The book fails to give interesting promises, and fails even harder to deliver upon them. The setting is interesting, but honestly I would rather have gripping characters and an intriguing plot. Instead, the book has average characters and a sub-par plot that borders on boring.
Note that the author wrote this while in college. That’s amazing! As someone who wrote multiple books through high school and college, I totally recognize how hard this is, and I don’t want to take away from the author’s accomplishment. However, part of the reason I’m so disappointed is because I feel like if she had taken a little bit more time to edit and work on her plot, this could’ve easily been a four- or five-star book. As it is, though, the plot dragged down what was otherwise an amazing concept.