Trina Low was the Queen Of The Tiles, the glamorous and hyper-competitive Scrabble champion who died abruptly and unexpectedly towards the end of a championship match when she was only 16. Her death scarred the lives of many of those around her, foremost among them being Najwa Bakri, her best friend and the girl determined to take over the title a year later on the anniversary of Trina’s death.
Najwa has been silently battling the anxiety that has plagued her ever since that horrible day. She’s fought her way back to a semblance of normalcy in the intervening year, and now wants to win the tournament in order to honor her best friend. It’s surreal to see so many of the same people competing for the prize, each with their own view of Trina. But things only get truly weird when Trina’s dormant Instagram account suddenly begins posting new stories, claiming that Trina was murdered and that one of them is to blame.
Mark, Trina’s boyfriend at the time of her death, wants to team up with Najwa to figure out what’s going on, but Najwa is hesitant to trust him. As far as she can tell, he’s hardly been the picture of grief, squiring various other girls around Kuala Lumpur in the past year instead. Worse, his relationship with Trina had been volatile at best, with Najwa often bearing witness to their escalating fights.
But perhaps the real reason Najwa doesn’t want to trust him or anyone else in helping her get to the bottom of things is that she herself doesn’t remember much of that fateful day. Her therapist assures her that amnesia of that sort is common to those who’ve undergone trauma, but Najwa harbors the fear that she might have seen something that she could have stopped, and perhaps saved her best friend in the process.
Regardless, she’s determined now not only to win the tournament but to figure out the truth behind Trina’s death and bring a murderer to justice. Even as she fights her inner demons to investigate, she must slowly accept that Trina was not as wonderful as Najwa always wanted to believe. Even worse, she has to figure out who could have hated Trina enough not only to kill her but to possibly kill again.
Hanna Alkaf is my favorite Malaysian writer and this novel only cements that opinion. Reading this book was like being transported back to Malaysia, in the setting and language and all the little touches that reminded me of home. It also resonated with me as a Scrabble fan, tho in fairness I would not want to play against this author given the prowess on display here. As a puzzle enthusiast, I so very much appreciated how the ciphers in this novel were actually challenging, including the larger mystery of whodunnit as revealed in the finale.
Most importantly, I appreciated the meditations on friendship, as well as the emphasis on inclusivity. No one anywhere writes about mental illness the way Ms Hanna does. And as an ambassador for contemporary Malaysia, in all its hot Manglish glory, there’s no one better at depicting the diversity and camaraderie and rivalry of characters who feel like they could have been the kids I ran with and into at Magic tournaments or debate championships (yes, I was a full-on nerd, but this is a book about Scrabble, for goodness’ sake.) The only thing I less than loved was how Mark’s abusiveness was not immediately seen as a red flag: friends and readers, if your romantic partner pushes you in anger over what you’re wearing, they need to be dumped post haste. Otherwise, Queen Of The Tiles is unmissable for anyone interested in either word games or Malaysia or just a terrific YA mystery read.
Queen Of The Tiles by Hanna Alkaf was published April 19 2022 by Salaam Reads and is available from all good booksellers, including