First sentence: “Most people play casual games of Scrabble in their living rooms, squabbling good-naturedly for points over sets their parents bought them in the hopes that it would be “educational.””
Scrabble can be a cut-throat game—especially when you have competitors who are all vying to reign supreme in the Scrabble tournament. They can’t walk away from something that’s important to them, and for Najwa, she can’t—not when there’s a lot of stakes involved.
After being away from that world for a year because of Najwa’s best friend Trina Low’s sudden death, Najwa is ready to come back and honor her best friend by winning the tournament. However, things are thrown into a loop when she starts receiving cryptic messages alluding that Trina’s death may have been on purpose and has to figure out what exactly happened to Trina during her last day by confronting friends and foes.
The Queen of the Tiles is for the word nerds. This book is a love letter to words. You can expect nothing less for a story centered around a competitive Scrabble tournament.
I love the way the words and meanings are woven into the story. Every word has a purpose—from the words that these characters use in competition to the cryptic messages from Trina’s hacked Instagram. Readers will be able to sense the deep appreciation that Hanna Alkaf and her character (especially Najwa) has for words. It makes me want to learn more words and their meaning.
It’s set in Malaysia, and is full of Southeast Asian characters. A lot of the books are set predominantly in the United States, so it’s wonderful to see a book set in Southeast Asia and that characters represent that diversity. You have Najwa, the hijabi Muslim teenager from Malaysia, who makes her return to the Scrabble tournament; Shuba, who is dark-skinned and identifies as they/them; a boy named Ben from Singapore; and many more characters who aren’t clearly defined but it’s implied they’re Southeast Asian.
Not only is the diversity represented in the characters, it’s also with the way Malay is woven into the narrative and the dialogue, which I love. I want to see more of that.
This book does a great job portraying grief. When Trina Low died all of a sudden, Najwa became lost—in her memories, in her grief, in her inability to move on—because what is she without Trina? How do you make sense of the loss when the one person’s who’s been with you since forever is no longer there? It’s painful for people like Najwa. I loved seeing how these characters dealt with their grief, and how their lives have changed without the presence of a person like Trina. You see the desperation in some of them to prove themselves and the lengths they’re willing to go through.
The revelation about Trina toward the end is a bit lackluster. I loved seeing Najwa investigating what happened on the last day Trina was alive, but I didn’t find the revelation satisfying. As much as readers spend so much time reading about these characters grieving and trying to figure out what happened to Trina and the events leading up to her death, everything that happened with the hacker behind Trina’s Instagram account overshadowed it. That hacker mystery pushed aside all the work that Najwa did like Trina’s death was an afterthought. The mood of the book turned from a grieving and trying to come to terms vibe to a completely unhinged and manic vibe that didn’t match the set up.
There is a place for both mysteries, but the speed of how everything was ignored for the hacker mystery baffled me.
Should you read Queen of the Tiles? Yes.