Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Author Interview and Book Giveaway: Karuna Riazi talks THE BATTLE

Happy Wednesday!

Middle Grade Minded is thrilled to be part of the blog tour of Karuna Riaza's new book THE BATTLE.

You don't have to have read her first book, THE GAUNTLET, but if you haven't, I highly recommend it because it is awesome!

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.

The Interview:

1) First of all, I adored THE BATTLE. Was it always your intention to revisit the game using a different medium and with Ahmad as the lead?

I am so glad to hear you enjoyed it - particularly since The Battle was not planned at all, in that there was no original sequel scheduled for The Gauntlet when it first sold. The fact that The Battle exists can only be credited to the wonderful response of readers like you, and how amazingly supportive you were for the first book! So, no, it wasn't my intention but when I was approached by my editor at Simon and Schuster and bosses at Cake Literary about reopening the game and letting Ahmad have a story of his own, I was very excited - and nervous! I wanted to do justice to the first book and give readers a follow-up that would be equally exciting and satisfying to read. I hope I've done that!

2) The World building in The Battle is amazing - what’s your process for creating not only a game with its levels and rules, but for building a world from scratch?

I am so glad that you enjoyed the world-building! I honestly love world-building, but world-building and game rules has been a particular headache in both books. I love video games and board games, but it does take a lot to translate over what seems so natural and matter-of-fact on a board or screen. Being part of a collaborative environment at Cake Literary definitely helped me both times in regards to thinking how the game would work, and which challenges would make sense, but there were moments in the draft where I had to step back and think, "Okay, if I were playing a video game level, what would make sense to see in this level? How would I interact with it? What would my restrictions be?"

There's a particular scene in the middle of the book where I really thought hard about some of my favorite video games and had to articulate how a digital tile might react if you stepped on it, or how walls would generate if you stepped toward them. I definitely think a lot of it is visualization, active hands-on experience with what you're trying to duplicate in your book (so, if you're writing a board game, consider how a board game's rules work, how the pieces look, what challenges you would face through gameplay) and then, if you have it, talking the rules and restrictions out with other people so you can see if it makes sense or is too simplistic.

In general, when world-building for these books, I tend to start with aspects of the real world I would love to include in the fictional world and then consider the ways in which my world will be different. For Paheli, I got to indulge my hidden passion for Islamic architecture and used that baseline to research and think outward for what a Middle Eastern-inspired city would reasonably have in terms of buildings and landmarks, the types of people that would populate it, and other things down to the items (in The Gauntlet) that are depicted for sale in the souk. 

3) I couldn’t help but wonder the whole way through the story if you are a gamer, too?

Yes, I am very much a gamer! I unfortunately do not play board games as much as I did when I was younger - it's now mostly reserved for special occasions when my sbilings and I are together with my cousins and we need a diversion to keep the little ones from killing each other, and that mostly ends up as Monopoly which is...not ideal for family harmony - but I definitely indulge a lot in video games, from PC titles like The Sims 4 and Civilization V to my favorite 3DS games like Animal Crossing, Ace Attorney and Fire Emblem! (Unlike Ahmad, I sadly do not have a Switch of my own yet, but I'm saving up for it!)

4) An important theme in The Battle is friendship and loyalty. While Ahmad and Winnie are the most obvious examples of this, you build it into the relationships of the other characters, too. How important is it to you as an author to instill these honorable traits in your characters?

I think as authors we tend to walk a fine line between moralizing and just...talking out the things that matter to us and we know matter to our readers. I think, particularly for marginalized children like Ahmad and Winnie, it's important to have this visible confirmation of who they are and who their friends are in books: that they are wonderful, supportive, caring and empathetic. So often, the world denies them this type of representation - and it really seems like such a little detail, to have kids of color who are good friends and trustworthy and loyal, but it does matter and it will confirm for them that this is who they are. I know as a girl of color and a Muslim growing up, my friendships and knowing that I had them mattered so much, and that's another reason why it's so important to me to represent strong friendships.

5) I love the idea that the citizens of Paheli are trying to hang on to who they are and their humanity. Can you talk about this and why this is so important for children today to think about?

I think in everything I write, I end up thinking - and discussing - agency a lot: even when we feel we are helpless, are there ways in which we can hold on to our own spirits and determination to do good? I definitely think that readers today, and their parents, are grappling with their own feeling of helplessness, and worrying about their own humanity and how to hold onto that when it seems like everywhere you look there's a new fire. It is never a theme that I outright go, "Okay, I'm going to discuss what it feels like to be under someone else's control and struggling to have your own voice and life," but when I was considering what it would mean to be in a video game as a non-playable character, it was something I felt needed to be addressed in some way. 

6) Ahmad starts the story feeling like an outsider, which I think is something many children can relate to. His expectations for himself are low. How do you think stories like The Battle help kids who feel like Ahmad?

I think it's important to consider how the most beloved children's series out there - Harry Potter - is about a Chosen One, but a Chosen One who starts out his journey as an underdog, unestimated and unloved, who has to build up his found family and his faith in himself. That story resonates with a lot of readers for a reason. A lot of the most popular titles, with kid readers, are stories where an ordinary kid, a flawed kid, finds love or succeeds at their destiny - because it makes it attainable, and there is more hope that, "Yes, I deserve this. Yes, someone who feels the same things I do can achieve this." 

Don't get me wrong: I came to writing fantasy as a kid because of wish fulfillment and escapism, and that is so very important. Not every story has to be realistic or involve the pain and hardships that kids have to face every day. But at the same time, there are very few kids who are in a middle school classroom feeling one hundred percent confident in themselves and how people perceive them. I know this as a teacher who loved all of her kids in her class but also heard a LOT about how they actually felt about themselves and how hard it was to believe in themselves, and as someone who used to be a very awkward bookworm who felt on the outside and like she would never have a close circle of friends or a group chat or a kindred spirit best friend like Anne Shirley or any of it. 

So, being able to write a character who has a believable, attainable goal - wanting to make a real friend - and having him be able to achieve that, was very important to me as someone who often read books and wanted that for herself.

(I will also note that writing Ahmad, a brown Muslim child of immigrants with a learning disability, made this narrative even more important in its being the story of an outsider who finds his niche and his abilities. Ahmad, and kids like Ahmad, wouldn't necessarily be able to feel reassured by the fantasy titles I grew up on in the early 2000s where marginalized characters were not seen and centered - much less to the depth of discussing background and personalized wants in a storyline. Being able to offer this title where his face is one of the hero and victor matters a lot in terms of representation, and filling a gap for the kids who are made outsiders by way of a dominant narrative that does not consider them.)

7) What’s next? Fans of Karuna Riazi want to know! (including me!)

As soon as I know, you'll know! In all seriousness, I'm wrapping up a YA manuscript I've been working on for some time and cooking up some middle-grade ideas to hopefully visit in the future, plus school and seeking representation. Nothing is under contract or signed yet, so fingers crossed for another great title on shelves in the future!


Want to Learn more about Karuna?

Visit!  It is a gorgeous website!

Or follow here on twitter: @KarunaRiazi

Time to win a book!

This is an easy giveaway! 

All you have to do is leave me a note below and tell me your favourite game! A random winner will be chosen this Friday, Sept 30th at midnight! Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway


Amanda Hoving said...

Great interview! I will have to check out both of these books...really interesting premise. My favorite game is Scrabble followed closely by Clue and Apples to Apples. Thanks for sharing!

MLDavisReads said...

I haven't read the first book yet, but this pair dounds right up my alley! I love books like the 39 clues and Max Flash where you feel like you're on the mission with the characters. Can't wait to chdck out your work 😀

MLDavisReads said...

Ugh forgot to say my favorite games are Cranium and Scattergories.

Charlotte said...

Looking forward to this one! I'm a Cataan fan.

starzine said...

I would say Monopoly.