Review | Queen of the Tiles, by Hanna Alkaf

QueenOfTheTilesOkay, Netflix needs to turn this into a mini-series, stat! First of all, it’s a murder mystery set at an annual Scrabble championship. How absolutely nerdy-awesome is that for a setting?! Even better, clues are revealed in word puzzles. (Are they called anagrams if the mixed-up letters don’t really form words?) Watching protagonist Najwa Bakri look at a jumble of letters and figure out what they spell: what I would give to see that play out on screen! And finally, it’s set in Malaysia, with Malay words casually integrated into characters’ dialogue. As a word nerd who loves mysteries and who grew up in Southeast Asia, this is a book I wish so badly I could have read as a teen, and I am so thrilled today’s teens get to experience this for themselves.

Queen of the Tiles is a word nerd’s dream of a murder mystery. Beyond the clues being word puzzles, the story also shows us glimpses of the Scrabble games. Just like The Queen’s Gambit showed non-chess-players how awesome chess strategies can be, Queen of the Tiles introduces us to a world where placing one word immediately below another can unveil multiple combinations of two-letter words that end up doubling or tripling your score. It shows us how a player may put in a made-up word on purpose, to force their opponent to do something on their turn that will open up an even bigger opportunity for the first player to score. Seriously: I would watch a documentary on this; I would watch a CGI sequence of these Scrabble tiles clicking into place while teens eye each other and plot their next move.

The central mystery revolves around Najwa’s best friend, Trina. Trina was beautiful, brilliant at Scrabble, and Instagram-famous. She was adored as a superstar Scrabble player, which, honestly is awesome in itself to imagine such fame, and widely known as the Queen of the Tiles. She dies suddenly in a match against long-time opponent Josh, and her death was deemed to be due to natural causes. A year later, Najwa returns to the Scrabble tournament circuit to compete in the same tournament. Trina’s death the year before casts a pallor over the tournament, but most of the buzz is around how the title of Monarch of the Tiles is now up for grabs. Then Trina’s long-dormant Instagram account posts an update, hinting that there was something suspicious about her death. And Najwa, along with some of Trina’s other friends, investigates her final hours.

Najwa is a fantastic protagonist. I love how the author incorporates Najwa’s Scrabble brain into her regular thinking: Najwa often thinks in Scrabble tiles. Her reflections on events include a single-word summary of the situation, along with that word’s Scrabble score. She also says each person can be encapsulated in a single word, and then drops complex words with such nonchalant chill that I wish my vocabulary had such range. I also like how the author explores her trauma over Trina’s death, and her complicated feelings about having been in Trina’s shadow. We see a bit of Najwa’s experiences in therapy, and some of the skills she learned to cope, and I love how natural the author makes all of it feel. There’s still so much stigma around mental health, that it’s good to see the value of therapy portrayed in this novel.

I also absolutely adore the cast of characters. Most of Trina and Najwa’s friends, who also happen to be prime suspects in Trina’s death, are amongst the Scrabble elite. (One of them, Ben, is known in the community as Singapore Ben, to differentiate him from KL Ben, who is much lower ranked.) As brilliant as Najwa is, these other characters stand toe-to-toe with her on the Scrabble field, and it’s just a joy to see all these teens chat about love, dating, family, and other teen topics, while casually also doing word games over snacks.

Honestly, I can gush about this book all day. It’s probably my favourite read of the year so far. I highly recommend it on so many levels, and if it ever does get turned into a mini-series, I would binge it that very weekend. I devoured this book in a single day, and already I want more!

+

Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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