A trio of friends from New York City find themselves trapped inside a mechanical board game that they must dismantle in order to save themselves and generations of other children in this action-packed debut that’s a steampunk Jumanji with a Middle Eastern flair.
Nothing can prepare you for The Gauntlet…
It didn’t look dangerous, exactly. When twelve-year-old Farah first laid eyes on the old-fashioned board game, she thought it looked…elegant.
It is made of wood, etched with exquisite images—a palace with domes and turrets, lattice-work windows that cast eerie shadows, a large spider—and at the very center of its cover, in broad letters, is written: The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand.
The Gauntlet is more than a game, though. It is the most ancient, the most dangerous kind of magic. It holds worlds inside worlds. And it takes players as prisoners.
FARAH HAD HER BACK pressed against the seat of the living room sofa, keeping a wary eye on the door as more party guests filed in while she played marbles with Ahmad.
“My turn, Farah apu!” Ahmad shouted with seven-year-old enthusiasm, startling strangers. “My turn!”
He sat beside her on the floor, a box of chenna murki placed in front of him. He offered her a bite of the soft, tender, marble-sized morsels of sweet cheese, which he’d chomp by the handful. “Want one?” he asked, offering her a piece.
Farah wrinkled her nose at the treat. She didn’t do sweets, not even the Bangladeshi kind that the rest of her family devoured. She liked to think of herself as a bit of a rebel, at least in this small way.
“Don’t you want to try some of the snacks Ma made? Samosas or pakoras. Or do you want to talk to Essie and Alex?” Farah asked. She was always in convincing mode when it came to Ahmad. “We haven’t seen them in a while.”
“He wants to play with you, Farah, that’s all,” Essie said, looking down at Farah from her seat on the sofa.
Farah’s only other friend, Alex, was seated in an armchair nearby, running a hand through his thick curls, his nose firmly planted in a book. He hadn’t spoken a word to her, or anyone else, since the quiet greeting he’d spared when he came through the door. While Alex had never been a big talker, this indifference was new.
Today was the first time Farah had seen either Essie or Alex in months. It felt as though their friendship had been . . . not dented, not shattered, nothing so terrible and threatening and nearly beyond repair. Just a little loosened out of its socket.
“Let’s play. You and me,” Ahmad said. “You can have the good marbles this time.”
Farah smiled at him. Ahmad was only seven, she had to remind herself when she got frustrated. Just as she had lost friends in their move from Queens to the Upper East Side, he had lost his friends too. Friends for Ahmad were harder to come by, given his issues. Even on her birthday, when she felt the universe owed her gentle understanding that she didn’t always want to play with her baby brother, she couldn’t deny him and his gap-toothed smile.
“Okay, one more game,” she said, drawing a chalk circle on the floor.
He arranged the marbles in a plus sign. “Me first.”
He pressed his knuckle to the floor and shot a finger forward. His favorite cat’s-eye marble struck the others, expertly scattering them. Three flew out of the circle, and one hit a nearby shoe.
She hovered over Farah and Ahmad for a moment, then picked up the box of sweets from the floor, popping a few chenna murki into her mouth.
“My cheese marbles!” Ahmad shouted, leaping for the box.
Aunt Zohra’s thin lips formed what passed for a smile. On anyone else it might be a grimace. She was scarecrow thin and fence-post tall. She wore a salwar kameez without any embroidery, unlike the fancy, glittering mirrors that adorned Farah’s own sky blue hem and long sleeves. She handed Ahmad the box, and he greedily scooped up more sweets.
“Why don’t you join your guests, Farah?”
“I would, but . . .”
“I’m winning, Zohra Masi,” Ahmad explained.
“Ahmad,” Aunt Zohra said gently, “I need to celebrate with the birthday girl, and so do the others. We must not keep her guests waiting.” Aunt Zohra was pretty good with Ahmad, considering how infrequently Farah and Ahmad saw her; Aunt Zohra mostly kept to herself. And even when she visited the family, she didn’t talk much. Her mind always seemed to be elsewhere.
“They’re not really my guests. Mostly aunties, and kids from my new school. I’d rather stay here.” Farah thought that Aunt Zohra might understand. After all, she wasn’t much for socializing either.
Aunt Zohra flashed Farah another smile. “Well, it is your birthday. You should have some fun. My gift for you is waiting upstairs. We can open it after the party. I think you’ll find a good use for it though. Better than I ever did.”
“Is the present in your room, Zohra Masi? Can I get it? Can I open it?” Ahmad aimed a kick at Farah’s shin, which, from years of practice, she dodged. Today’s tantrum was nothing new. Trying to avoid just this scenario, Baba and Ma gave Ahmad gifts even on Farah’s birthday to keep his antics to a minimum.
He balled up his fists and bellowed, “Please! Please! Let me open it, Farah apu.” When he reached this point of excitement, you couldn’t even see his eyes anymore. He squeezed them so tight, folding them away in the same manner he might if he were wishing on birthday candles or trying to compress himself out of existence.
For a second, Farah thought his disappearing wouldn’t be such a bad thing: calling down a goblin king to whisk him off into the deep, dark depths of a fairy labyrinth or sidestepping himself into another dimension.
Still, it was Farah and Ahmad, Ahmad and Farah. She didn’t know what life would be without him.
“It’s a present for me. For my birthday. You got your present earlier. Those shiny new marbles,” Farah said. She knew that Ahmad’s ADHD meant he couldn’t always control himself. Baba said Ahmad had moments where he was trapped in his own overwhelming emotions, like being lost in a frustrating maze, and Farah had to be patient until he found his way out again.
Baba was in the dining room with Uncle Musafir talking about the new offices his software business would be settling into. He did not have to deal with Ahmad or his mazelike mind right this second.
“Ahmad, I have something to show you,” Aunt Zohra said, flashing her Turkish puzzle rings. They glimmered in the light, delicate on Aunt Zohra’s long, lanky fingers.
His eyes grew big. They had never played with Turkish puzzle rings before, but as a game-loving family, they had of course heard of them. Each ring was made up of interlocking thinner rings, forming a beautiful intricate design, like a series of golden waves. Aunt Zohra winked at Farah over his head.
“Wait! My marbles first!” Ahmad skittered away like one of his precious marbles, darting under a nearby couch to retrieve them. Aunt Zohra trailed after him. Farah felt a guilty, giddy rush of relief.
Aunt Zohra coaxed Ahmad out and toward the kitchen, where Ma was no doubt keeping busy. Farah watched her mother work through the pass-through window: She stirred the pots brimming with simmering sauces and curries and steaming rice, picked up each spice jar carefully lined up on the counter, and sprinkled the bright, colorful aromatics over the food.
The front door opened and closed, and more and more of the kids from her new school filed in through the doorway. Most of them were accompanied by their mothers, with a few harried-looking nannies bouncing younger siblings on their hips and locating odd corners to deposit overflowing diaper bags. They waved and said nice, polite, meaningless things.
Farah knew she should go greet her guests. It was the right thing for a good Bangladeshi girl to do. But most of these kids were still strangers to her, and she was a stranger to them. On her birthday, she wanted to avoid having the kind of small talk that happens between not-really-friends. She especially didn’t want to discuss her scarf. It was a question that Farah had never heard at her old school. She hadn’t been the only hijaabi in her class in Queens. There, everyone had known the proper name for it and did not try to tug at the end or ask how her hair looked underneath it or if she even had hair. Now she went to a school in downtown Manhattan, where she was the only hijaabi in her class.
Farah moved herself to sit on the couch by Essie, who had busied herself with a game on her phone. Last year Farah would have had no problem breaking the silence and suggesting a fun thing to do. Now she felt unsure. Should she suggest they play Monopoly? They had spent hours playing board games last year. But today the suggestion felt little-kiddish. What if her friends didn’t enjoy board games anymore? Should she ask about school? Or would that only bring attention to the fact that she wasn’t there? And anyway, no kid wanted to talk about school. Farah’s thoughts were interrupted by Essie. “Let’s do something. . . . I’m bored,” she said.
“Me too,” said Farah. She immediately felt awful. This was her party, and her friends were already bored.
“Can we open some of your presents?” offered Alex, looking up from his book. “Maybe you got something cool.”
“My mom probably won’t want me opening any gifts until after the party. It would look rude taking them off the table around all the guests.”
“What about the gift your aunt got you? Didn’t she say it was upstairs?” asked Essie.
Farah thought back to the presents Aunt Zohra had given her over the years: a set of fruit patterned knives from the local BJ’s for Farah to “learn her colors,” clothes in the wrong size and in odd, erratic patterns from unfamiliar Bengali boutiques back in Dhaka. The kind of presents you’d expect from an absentminded grandmother at Christmas, ones offered without any particular meaning or thought.
“It’s nothing exciting, I’d guess,” she said. “But we might as well check it out.”
Farah, Alex, and Essie grabbed some snacks and headed upstairs, Essie balancing two plates piled high with samosas, fried vegetable pakoras, and one or two overly syrupy sweets that would no doubt spoil their appetite, Alex taking up the rear and anxiously peering over his shoulder to make sure their escape wasn’t noticed.
Farah’s aunt was staying in a guest room, and when they opened the door, they found Ahmad holding a square package wrapped in plain brown paper.
“That’s my gift!” Farah ran in and took it out of his hands. “How did you escape Aunt Zohra?” Not that Farah needed an answer. Ahmad was really good at wandering off without detection. It was one of the reasons Farah kept such a close eye on him whenever they went out.
Ahmad stood up on the bed and started jumping. “Open it! Open it!”
Farah didn’t know what was inside. Still, she was overcome by a feeling of something new, something strange, something hovering in the air, as fragrant and weighty as the steam off Ma’s cooking pots. It piqued her curiosity. She peeled back the paper, pushing away Ahmad’s greedy hands as she worked. Soon a polished wooden corner emerged.
Finally, the entire thing slid out of the paper into Farah’s hands. She held it up to the light as Alex craned his head over her shoulder.
It was a game. A board game, most likely. It had the same square shape of a regular game box, but it was sturdier, antique-looking. The dark wood was emblazoned with carved images: palaces with domes and elegant spirals and high arches, a fearsome spider with its fangs horrendously large and carefully rendered, an elegantly curved lizard, a sparkling minaret, and a wasp-waisted hourglass—and at the very center of its cover, in broad letters, was written THE GAUNTLET OF BLOOD AND SAND.
Essie’s eyes widened as she leaned forward to look, her mouth a small O of delight and excitement.
“Wow,” Alex breathed.
Ahmad jumped up and down with excitement. “I want it, Farah apu,” he said. “I want it!”
“What is it?” Essie said.
Farah’s hand paused over the wooden cover. “I . . . don’t know what this is.”
Before she even finished the sentence, the game started to vibrate.
Farah Mirza and her friends, Essie and Alex, are determined to rescue Farah’s little brother, Ahmad, who has been lured inside a game called Paheli. As the boundaries between reality and fantasy fade and the friends become trapped themselves, they are isolated from the world they know in New York City. A quest for survival drives them to challenge the power and authority of the Architect in a mission to dismantle the city itself. When the time comes to challenge the game a second time, Ahmad is now twelve, confronting Paheli’s riddles with his friend Winnie. They enter a newly coded world, rebuilt by the MasterMind with computer-programmed upgrades controlled by the Architect. Underneath it all, the city is rotting with dread and desperation, powered by corruption and greed. As power struggles develop, alliances form, and surreal quests and challenges unfold with strange and supernatural creatures. Winning depends on the children’s ability to face and overcome injustice with the courage to speak up for what they believe in, working together to find their way back home.
1. The Gauntlet and The Battle are narratives told from two different points of view. Farah’s first-person narrative creates the tone of The Gauntlet. Did you relate to her voice? How does her perspective impact the way the story is told?
2. A third-person omniscient narrator sets the tone for The Battle. Did switching points of view affect the way you experienced these stories? If so, in what ways? Why do you think the author chose a third-person narrator to tell the story of The Battle?
3. What drives each of the children to enter the game and willingly put themselves in danger? Consider Farah, Essie, Alex, Ahmad, and Winnie. What do their convictions reveal about them? Would you have followed them into the game? Explain your answer.
4. The children face multiple fears in their dedication to a purpose greater than themselves. As Vijay Bhai forewarned Ahmad, “‘You can’t win this game unless you take chances.’” Discuss some of these fears the children encountered and found the courage to confront. What were the outcomes? Describe a time in your life that required courage, and how you handled the situation. What did you learn from the experience?
5. The author explores a variety of themes including loss, loneliness, isolation, helplessness, social confusion, identity, bullying, injustice, belonging, vulnerability, resilience, respect, compassion, courage, hope, and friendship. Find examples of some of these in the book. What roles do these themes play in the games? What roles do they play in your life? What makes you feel safe, protected, and valued? Explain your answers.
6. How do the children feel about trust? How responsible are they for each other’s well-being and actions? How important is trust to you? How responsible do you think we should be for one another?
7. The children could not have survived the games without the help of others. What supernatural companions do they have to guide them? Consider T. T. and Henrietta especially. What are their roles? Why are these new friends so willing to help the children through the challenges?
8. Pace and momentum affect the telling of these stories. Constant commotion, upheavals, confrontations, and confusion contribute to a chaotic narrative that creates tension, fear, and uncertainty, keeping the children—and the reader—off-balance. What scene did you find most suspenseful? What was the most critical choice that had to be made, and what was the outcome? What would you have done?
9. Aunt Zohra has a “long-forgotten trauma and haunted past.” How does her experience in the game affect her behavior in the present? Why does she keep her involvement in the game a secret?
10. What is Vijay Bhai’s role in both stories? Describe the relationship he has with the other characters. What do you think of him and his intentions? Explain your answers.
11. In your opinion, what is Farah’s greatest strength? What are Ahmad’s, Winnie’s, Essie’s, Alex’s, and Vijay Bhai’s? In what ways are these strengths crucial to the unfolding stories?
12. Which character do you relate to most? What is it about that character that you identified or connected with? Which character is most unlike you, and for what reasons? How would you go about getting to know them better or finding something about them you can relate to? Who would you most want to be like? Explain your answer.
13. Why do the Architect and the MasterMind destroy the dream district of Lailat, called “a place of eternal night and endless carnivals”? What does this reveal about their motivations?
14. What were your initial impressions of Ahmad in The Gauntlet? Did your thoughts and feelings about him change as you read The Battle? In what ways?
15. Winnie often notices things that Ahmad does not. She has little patience for pretense and is not easily fooled. Are her suspicions about Madame Nasirah justified? Give examples from the text that arouse her suspicion. What do you think of Madame Nasirah?
16. In order to fully understand the loyalties in Paheli and the complexities of the games, it’s important to consider other viewpoints. What are the Architect’s, the MasterMind’s, Titus Salt’s, and the jinn’s backstories? What is the significance of their motivations? Find examples that give the reader deeper insight into each of these characters and their personal goals and struggles. Who or what is the true power in Paheli? Who are the true heroes?
17. Which parts of the story most held your interest? What scenes were the most surprising, confusing, compassionate, or memorable to you? Explain your answers.
18. What do you think is the core message of these two stories? What effect did they have on you? Have they changed your perspective about anything? Will you think about certain people or situations differently in the future?
19. Which moments of the children’s journey were most relatable? Which parts inspired you? Do you see yourself differently after reading these stories?
20. Did you find the ending of The Battle satisfying? Explain your reasoning. Do you feel there are things left unresolved or uncertain?
21. What do you think life in New York City will be like for the children after experiencing the challenges in the city of Paheli? What new realizations and inner strengths might they bring home with them?
1. Do parts of Karuna Riazi’s stories remind you of other books or movies? How do these similarities strengthen your understanding and enjoyment of her stories? Discuss some references that stand out for you, what they call to mind, and how they enhance aspects of The Gauntlet and The Battle.
2. Write a letter to one of the characters in either The Gauntlet or The Battle. Who would you choose? What would you want him or her to know? What encouragement would you give? What questions would you ask? What would you reveal about yourself?
3. Ahmad struggles with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and believes himself to be lacking in several fundamental ways. He says that he “trusted Winnie but he couldn’t quite trust himself the same way.” What do you think he means by that? In what ways is he challenged by his disorder? In what ways does his ADHD serve him well as he maneuvers through the dangers and chaos? Learn about possible symptoms of ADHD and relate them to the life Ahmad is living.
4. Winnie suggests, “Don’t accept the label they put on you.” To what extent do labels define us? Discuss ways in which you label yourself, and ways in which you and your friends label one another. What are the results of doing this? Brainstorm as a class ways in which you can educate, prevent, or speak out against prejudices and sterotypes.
5. The Middle Eastern setting is essential to the story, and the experiences are rich with visually descriptive imagery and strong characterization that suggest potential for a screenplay. Visualize the special effects needed. Imagine whom you would cast in the lead roles. How would you represent the chaos from one precarious and unpredictable moment to the next? Discuss your ideas with a partner.
6. The author creates mental images using vivid and clear descriptions. Choose a moment from either of the two novels, and describe what you felt as you read the passage, responding in a way that reflects the experience for you. Your response can be in the form of a painting, collage, musical composition, poem, dance, or any other form of expression that is meaningful to you. Share your creation with your peers.
7. Author Karuna Riazi includes an abundance of references to the food, clothing, and architecture of Muslim culture. In a small group, research the references that most interest you, and share your findings.
The Gauntlet: Lexile ® HL700L
The Battle: Lexile ® 710L
The Lexile reading level has been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®
This guide was prepared in 2019 by Judith Clifton, Educational Consultant, Chatham, MA. Visit simonandschuster.net or simonandschuster.net/thebookpantry for more resources and book information.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit simonandschuster.net or simonandschuster.net/thebookpantry.
Karuna Riazi is a born and raised New Yorker, with a loving, large extended family and the rather trying experience of being the eldest sibling in her particular clan. Besides pursuing a BA in English literature from Hofstra University, she is an online diversity advocate, blogger, and publishing intern. Karuna is fond of tea, baking new delectable treats for friends and family to relish, Korean dramas, and writing about tough girls forging their own paths toward their destinies. She is the author of The Gauntlet and The Battle.