March 28th 2017 by Salaam Reads
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline
Farah and her family have moved from Queens to a fancier part of NYC, and Farah is having trouble making new friends. For her birthday, her mother makes her have a big family party, but allows her to invite friends Alex and Essie. Her aunt tells her there is a present waiting for her, and the group finds a creepy wooden box with a game in it. They are a little freaked out by it, but Farah's younger brother Ahmed (who is quite a pistol and is identified as having ADHD) decides to follow the directions and gets sucked into the game. Since Farah is always the caretaker of her brother, she's concerned. The aunt does indicate that the game is dangerous and she did NOT leave it for Farah, but the game has a mind of its own. When Farah and her friends enter the game, they find a complex world akin to that of the Arabian Nights, and have to complete a lot of tasks in order to destroy the kingdom of Paheli ("a riddle, a question that needs to be answered")and return to their own world. They get help from the gamekeeper, Madame Nasirah, a troop of sentient lizards led by Henrietta Peel, and other players who were trapped in the game. Will Farah be able to win the game and escape with her friends and brother?
Strengths: It's great that Simon and Schuster has started Salaam Reads, and even better that one of the first offerings is a fantasy book. We have a significant Somali population at my school, and many of the students are extremely avid fantasy readers who love Rick Riordan, Lisa McMann, and P.B. Kerr fantasy adventure titles. I think that they will be pleased to have a Muslim centered fantasy, even if it is Middle Eastern. Farah's family life is warmly described, and there are a lot of small details that give the story a diverse feeling-- food, clothing, even Farah's relationship with her brother. The adventure was a good one, and the ensemble worked together nicely.
Weaknesses: I felt like I was missing a lot of the background for people and places in Paheli. If these were drawn from Middle Eastern folklore, some explanatory notes would have been nice.
What I really think: I will definitely buy a copy for my library, but I found Ahmed to be SO bratty that I sort of wished that Farah would have closed up the game box, put it in her closet, and steered clear of it for the rest of her life! (What can I say-- I have a younger brother as well!)