About The Book

The game begins again in this gripping follow-up to The Gauntlet that’s a futuristic middle eastern Zathura meets Ready Player One!

Four years after the events of The Gauntlet, the evil game Architect is back with a new partner-in-crime—The MasterMind—and the pair aim to get revenge on the Mirza clan. Together, they’ve rebuilt Paheli into a slick, mind-bending world with floating skyscrapers, flying rickshaws run by robots, and a digital funicular rail that doesn’t always take you exactly where you want to go.

Twelve-year-old Ahmad Mirza struggles to make friends at his new middle school, but when he’s paired with his classmate Winnie for a project, he is determined to impress her and make his very first friend. At home while they’re hard at work, a gift from big sister Farah—who is away at her first year in college—arrives. It’s a high-tech game called The Battle of Blood and Iron, a cross between a video game and board game, complete with virtual reality goggles. He thinks his sister has solved his friend problem—all kids love games. He convinces Winnie to play, but as soon as they unbox the game, time freezes all over New York City.

With time standing still and people frozen, all of humankind is at stake as Ahmad and Winnie face off with the MasterMind and the Architect, hoping to beat them at their own game before the evil plotters expand Paheli and take over the entire world.

Excerpt

The Battle CHAPTER ONE


I SWEAR I DIDN’T DO it. That’s what you want to hear from me, right?”

At twelve years old, Ahmad Mirza probably shouldn’t have been used to roundtable interrogations. Or know from experience what your captors wanted to hear before they would let you out from under the lights aimed at your face. “I mean, sneaking around and stealing isn’t part of my daily routine.”

It was the usual setup. The same old faces were clustered in the conference room, all wearing various expressions of dismay. Mrs. Evans, his homeroom teacher, clung to her coffee mug like it was a lifesaver and she was a woman overboard. Mr. Willis, the art teacher who always wore a jolly expression and cheerily arranged dreadlocks, seemed abnormally grim.

The door creaked open ominously, and Ms. Mallory, the nosy office secretary, peered in. “Do you still need the vice principal, Mr. Willis?” she asked.

Her voice sounded a little too eager, in Ahmad’s opinion. Resentment bubbled up and he tried to push it down. Today wasn’t an ordinary day. Today, he might have already pushed the limits of any patience PS 54 had for Ahmad Mirza and his escapades. But he ended up blurting it out anyway.

“Go ahead, Ms. Mallory. You can bring the torture devices too, but I won’t talk.”

Mr. Willis sighed heavily. “No, we don’t need him, Ms. Mallory. Just . . . close the door.”

Ms. Mallory shot Ahmad a giddy smile as she did just that. She was probably off to make sure she still had Ahmad’s parents on speed dial, and she probably did.

He didn’t want to think about that, though. That started the squirming up again, and the shaking in his legs that would reach his voice and really prove his false bravado to be just that: an act. Even if this was Ahmad’s normal—lunch detention and angry teachers—he didn’t want to look his mother in the eyes and tell her he messed up again.

“This sucks,” Ahmad mumbled to himself.

Especially because today—for once—it wasn’t his fault. There had been no fight over the contents of his lunch box, no classmate leaning in and jeering at the green chili–spiked mashed potatoes that made your nose sting with the scent of fresh mustard-seed oil, or the little dried fish even he hated with eyes and silvery scales still intact.

He’d managed to be mostly respectful during class discussions, and kept his hands and feet to himself during gym. He’d even raised his hand a few times in the name of being helpful and passing out pencils, though he wasn’t called on.

But in spite of all that, here he was. It didn’t feel fair.

Particularly today. Because whether Mr. Willis and Mrs. Evans believed it or not . . .

“It’s really not my fault,” he tried again. “I don’t even know how it got here.”

It was the package currently resting in front of Mrs. Evans on the table. It was an innocent yellow mailer, sealed over with Scotch tape. Nothing about it said anything like DANGER or DEVASTATING REPORT CARD INSIDE. It looked like, if you turned it over, it would be something boring like his baba’s tax papers or maybe a trinket Ma ordered from overseas.

It was nothing special. At least on the outside.

Now Mrs. Evans heaved a heavy sigh. She reached for the package, tilting it downward so that its contents could slide into her palm.

“Be careful!” Ahmad gasped in spite of himself, leaning forward in his seat. Mrs. Evans shot him a dirty look but worked it out more carefully.

Though Ahmad had held it himself just half an hour ago, the sight of it made his heart lurch. It was a shiny game case, the type that held a Nintendo Switch cartridge. The cover, though, wasn’t the usual 3-D characters with smiling faces and multicolored backgrounds. It was pitch black, with embossed neon images—thin lined and finely detailed, like hand sketches—on its front. What looked like flying cars and, amazingly, rickshaws were etched over a skyline that looked almost like New York City.

At least, if New York City had buildings even more futuristic than the skyscrapers Ahmad passed on his way to school.

Even though he couldn’t see the title clearly from where Mrs. Evans held it to the light, he still mouthed it, quietly, to himself.

“The Battle.”

Mrs. Evans let out a hiss, startling both him and Mr. Willis, who leaned forward with a frown.

“Everything all right, Mrs. Evans?” he asked.

She frowned down at the game. “Yes. I think it was just static electricity.”

“It’s not just that,” Ahmad blurted out, even though inside his brain was chanting, Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP, Ahmad. “It probably doesn’t like you.”

“Ahmad, really.” His teacher leaned forward and waved the game in his face. “Okay. For the last time, tell me what this is.”

“A video game,” Ahmad responded. It was getting harder to control his snarky tongue and fidgety feet. He was usually better at this. He was. But the fact that they had been here a half hour and he still couldn’t tell his side of the story was rattling him. “Honestly, I’ve told you this like twenty times now. I don’t know where it came from.”

Except, of course, he did. Sort of.

“That’s not what you told us before, Mirza.”

“I did tell you that! I don’t know why I have it. Really, I don’t.”

“You also told me,” Mr. Willis broke in, “that the game belonged to you.”

Ahmad stuck his chin out. “That’s because it does.”

“The question is, Mirza,” Mrs. Evans snapped, “how you knew for sure this was your video game, and—more importantly—how a video game that apparently belongs to you was delivered to the school office this morning to begin with!”

Ahmad had no idea himself, though he’d glanced over the package probably a thousand times since it was first shoved into his hands a few hours ago. His sister’s name and school were neatly printed on the return address—Farah Mirza, care of Princeton University.

His big sister was known for being . . . well, hard to predict. But this was mysterious, even for her. Sending a package straight to his school, without any warning?

“Ahmad, I’m about ready to get the principal in here himself and suspend you,” Mrs. Evans interrupted. “We know what’s in the package, and that it’s from your sister. And you have no idea why she sent it to school?”

“My sister does what she wants,” Ahmad said firmly, and not without a little pride. The next part was harder to ease out, but he managed it, his fingers fidgeting in his lap. “Well, I mean, we did talk a lot about, you know. School. And friends. And how I didn’t really have any. She might’ve wanted to . . . I don’t know.”

And he really didn’t know. Not having friends had never been a problem his sister faced. For him, though, it was his entire life.

“Okay, then,” Mrs. Evans sighed. “Let’s leave your sister alone for now. What I want to know is how much nerve you have, Mr. Mirza, to sneak out and steal a package from the school office when you were supposed to be in lunch detention.”

“Okay. Okay. Listen.” Ahmad closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to steady his voice and his thick tongue. “I’m not sure why you keep saying the word ‘s-steal.’ How could I steal it if it was mine?”

Ahmad’s voice broke on the last word, and he could feel his face flush. He tried to pretend he was good at this—the whole bad boy routine—because people seemed to expect it of him. His parents no longer hugged him about the shoulders and patted his back and told him tomorrow would be better. His aunt Zohra wouldn’t call and anxiously shuffle about with offers to help with his homework. (As if she knew as much about pre-algebra and auxiliary verbs as she did about Turkish puzzle rings and weird facts about Middle Eastern architecture.)

If anything, a suspension no longer meant one of his parents would take off in order to collect him. His weird, goofy uncle Vijay would—and that meant never leaving school without being more embarrassed than he ever felt before in his life.

He was the Mirza who came home with urgent notes at the bottom of his report card in red ink. The one who spent lunch with his stomach growling because the contents of his box had already been mopped off the cafeteria floor.

But he didn’t like being that Mirza.

Mr. Willis, as always, came to the rescue. He put a firm hand on Ahmad’s shoulder.

“Never mind that, Mrs. Evans. Look. Ahmad. We can address everything else with your parents. But I am terribly curious to know how the boy I left at the door of lunch detention managed to zip back down to the office, rummage through staff mail, and get back upstairs in time to get himself in a world of trouble.”

“You say that like it isn’t a normal thing,” Ahmad muttered, but he shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Ahmad wished he could tell them. He wished he could spin out the whole yarn, with every snag and loose end, and assure them that for once it was entirely, one hundred percent true.

But they couldn’t believe him.

How could they, when he couldn’t believe himself?

“See, the thing is . . .”

He worked his lip between his teeth. How could he put it, without being accused of another tall tale dedicated to excusing whatever trouble his fidgety body and overactive brain had steered him into?

“Look. I really didn’t go into the office. Mr. Willis even said it! I didn’t have time to.”

“Okay,” Mrs. Evans said cautiously. Mr. Willis leaned closer.

“It was more of a . . . well, someone made sure I got the delivery, while I was still in the hallway.”

“You mean, another student?” Mr. Willis’s voice was full of doubt, and Ahmad’s heart sank. He could see it in his teacher’s eyes: Who in this school cares that much about you?

“I mean . . . well, um . . .”

It was no use. His mind had skittered off track. He banged his fist on the table, fighting back tears. This always happened. He started out sharp and snarky—and then, when he actually needed to be able to say something, it all just fizzled out. Poof!

After another heavy minute Mr. Willis sighed and leaned back.

“Well, that’s that. Mrs. Evans, I hope you don’t mind excusing Ahmad for the rest of the day. He’s going to spend some quality time in here thinking about how he can explain this to us.”

“But . . . the project!” Ahmad burst out, unable to help himself. His heart sank. Today was the day that art class projects were announced, and those were legendary.

“Don’t worry, you’re not going to miss out on all of it,” Mr. Willis said, frowning. “But there is a problem. We’re doing it in partnered pairs this time, so unless someone nominates you during class, you’ll have extra work to make up.”

Ahmad sank down in his seat. This day had just gone from bad to worse.

“This isn’t fair,” he mumbled. “It really isn’t fair.”

“I wish I could make an exception and let you come back to class,” Mr. Willis continued, “but the fact that you won’t tell us the whole story—”

Behind them, the door to the conference room shot open. Mr. Willis, his mouth still open, whirled around. Mrs. Evans gasped and nearly dropped her coffee mug.

“Winnie? What are you doing out of class?”

Ahmad stared as Winnie Williamson—straight-A student and pride of the seventh-grade class—stepped through the doorway. Her brown cheeks were slick with sweat and her dark halo of curls were mussed about her face.

She looked nervous, entirely different from the girl who had rushed toward him earlier as Mr. Willis paused to speak to another teacher. That moment, when she pressed the package between his fingers and whispered, “This is yours,” her entire face had been glowing.

“Well, you see . . .” Winnie hesitated for a moment, her hands balled in fists at her sides. And then, almost the way Ahmad would, she just blurted it out.

“Mr. Willis, I’m Ahmad’s partner in crime. And I want to be his partner for the project, too!”

Reading Group Guide

A Reading Group Guide to

The Gauntlet and The Battle

By Karuna Riazi

About the Books

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.

Discussion Questions

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?

Extension Activities

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.

About The Author

Courtesy of the author

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.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Salaam Reads / Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (October 1, 2019)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781534428720
  • Ages: 8 - 12

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Raves and Reviews

"Riazi once again offers a fast-paced story in a changing game world with floating skyscrapers, flying cars, flavorful food and sweets, and a giant talking mouse… An exciting return."

– Kirkus Reviews

"Fantasy featuring people of color is sorely needed, and while this adventurous sequel could be read on its own, it’s recommended to buy both novels for kids who love action-packed science fiction."

– School Library Journal

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