I was very excited to read this book, mostly because a) the author is of Bangladeshi origin, and b) the book is inspired by Jumanji, and we all know how awesome that was.
And my excitement was piqued after I read its first chapter excerpt. This book may be the middle grade, PG-12 version of Caraval but wayyyy better, trust me. Where Caraval lacked character depth and poignancy, this book seeps with it. Where Caraval suffered from little character development and relatability, this book is immersed with relatable, multidimensional characters.
Let’s see how I marked the stars:
•One star for the strong, beautifully woven plot:
This book is undoubtedly Caraval meets Jumanji. Like in Caraval, the protagonist enters a magical yet dangerous world looking for their lost, scatterbrained, impatient and impulsive younger siblings. Like in Caraval, their sole mission in this world is to find their siblings safe and sound and return home. Only, for Farah Mirza, protagonist of this book, home truly is a haven and heaven for her, unlike it was for Scarlett.
And like Jumanji, this boardgame is dangerous and should’ve come with a warning. Like in Jumanji, this book has a character people considered crazy because in reality, they too once played this game and lost a friend in it, and that trauma ate away their whole life. While it was Sarah and Alan in Junanji, it’s Aunt Zohra and Vijay Bhai here.
Seriously this book has such strong and intricate plot structure. You’ll surely love it.
Which older siblings among us didn’t have to give up lots of stuff for the sake of younger siblings’ tantrums? Which one of us had to leave friends behind for the sake of family moving away and then feel awkwardly distant from them when you rendezvoused with them? Which one of us never wished a siblings gone from their lives and then regret it for we love them too much?
It all happened with Farah. She’s only twelve but so much more mature than all her friends and most of the game’s characters. She’s steadfast, patient, smart and sometimes gives you the right reactions, even though they seem childish and self-centered to you at some point.
And her friends here? So distinctive. Usually sidekick friends are pushed to the back with cardboard personalities. But Essie and Alex were anything but. Essie is the outspoken, brash friend and muscle of the group, while Alex, the history nerd, is the brain, and Farah is the morality of the group. And the coolest thing is? She’s a hijabi girl!
And the minor characters are important too. Ahmad, Farah’s impatient brother, has ADHD, that often exasperates Farah’s family, including Farah herself, but her kindness and affection for him is endearing. And Ahmad was cute too. And despite being alone most of the game, he kept himself alive and survived the game, no easy feat for a 7 year old with no adult to take care of you and you have ADHD.
The setting was 80% the game, 20% Farah’s home in Manhattan, NYC. The descriptions Ms. Riazi gave to show us her setting were evocative, vivid and uniquely woven. While Jumanji had jungle setting, Gauntlet had an infusion of Middle Eastern Islamic architecture, and Bangladeshi cultural aspects such as a Sandesh shop, mention of samosa, betel leaves and chenna murki. And never in a moment the setting felt out of place or weird. Rather at some point, they’ll give you the chills.
I had to give an extra point for this. Like Sabaa Tahir did with Ember, Ms. Riazi added lots of Bengali words such as tiktiki, names of the sweets, masi, apu, Bhai, etc. It felt good to read about a fantasy book where you find your culture being appreciated. That’s how good it feels to read an own voices book.
One reason I couldn’t give this book 5 stars is because though it had an aweosme plot, sometimes it bogged down, especially during descriptions of the rules of many boardgames they played and the action scenes. There are many readers like me who never played any boardgames or a lot of them. For them, the newly introduced rules of real life games can be a bit mind boggling.
Overall, if you liked or read Caraval, I’d recommend this book to you. You’d love the beautiful friendship between Farah, Alex and Essie, the deep siblings relationship between Farah and Ahmad, and the strong bond of family and friends.