The Gauntlet, by Karuna Riazi (Simon and Schuster, middle grade, March 2017), is the story of three friends and one little brother who get (literally) sucked into the world of a game. If they can't solve the puzzles of the game world, they are trapped there, so the stakes are real and very high.
12-year-old Farah is given a birthday game, the Gauntlet of Blood and Sand, by her aunt, and she and her friends are intrigued but cautious as they read the strange rules that suggest the world of the game is real. Then her little brother, who has ADHD, bursts in on them and enters the game, disappearing from the real world. Farah is used to running after him, and is determined to get him back, so into the game she goes with her two friends, Essie and Alex.
They find themselves in a magical, Near Eastern/South Asian based world of sandstorms and minarets, and learn that there will be a series of timed challenges that they will have to pass to escape. Challenges that no group of kids has ever made it through before. Fortunately Farah and her friends are up for the challenge, but it's still a tense mad race through a shifting landscape of magic and menace....and the stakes are high and very real.
I loved the bright clarity of the reading experience here; the descriptions were beautifully vivid. if you like kaleidoscopic colors and rapidly shifting scenes in your middle grade fantasy, pick this one up! The story was fine, but not great; I found the actual puzzles and the final confrontation with the Architect of the game adequate without being tremendously gripping. Basically, the pages turned very quickly and I enjoyed the pictures the story made in my mind, and so it was a perfectly fine hour of reading. Not every book can be a best beloved.
And it was great to see a hijab wearing heroine in a mg fantasy; I think this is a first for me.
I also liked the Lizard Resistance Corps very much indeed, and they will probably be the winners of my "best fictional lizards of 2017." (That being said, so far they are the only contenders...how is it that I have read almost 150 books this year and have so few lizards to show for it?)
So for the diversity, the mental pictures, and for the humor of the lizards, Karuna Riazi is now an author I'll keep on my radar.
Here is the Kirkus review, which is more or less in line with my thoughts.