Title: Queen of the Tiles
Author: Hanna Alkaf
Genres: Contemporary, Mystery
Publisher: Salaam Reads
Review Copy: Received an electronic copy from the publisher
Availability: 19 April 2022
Summary: They Wish They Were Us meets The Queen’s Gambit in the world of competitive Scrabble when a teen girl is forced to investigate the mysterious death of her best friend a year after the fact when her Instagram comes back to life with cryptic posts and messages.
noun: a person or thing that precipitates an event or change
When Najwa Bakri walks into her first Scrabble competition since her best friend’s death, it’s with the intention to heal and move on with her life. Perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to choose the very same competition where said best friend, Trina Low, died. It might be even though Najwa’s trying to change, she’s not ready to give up Trina just yet.
But the same can’t be said for all the other competitors. With Trina, the Scrabble Queen herself, gone, the throne is empty, and her friends are eager to be the next reigning champion. All’s fair in love and Scrabble, but all bets are off when Trina’s formerly inactive Instagram starts posting again, with cryptic messages suggesting that maybe Trina’s death wasn’t as straightforward as everyone thought. And maybe someone at the competition had something to do with it.
As secrets are revealed and the true colors of her friends are shown, it’s up to Najwa to find out who’s behind these mysterious posts—not just to save Trina’s memory, but to save herself.
Review: [QUEEN OF THE TILES includes on-page death, panic attacks/PTSD, anxiety, as well as a significant focus on grief/loss.]
If fast-paced mysteries are your thing, Hanna Alkaf’s QUEEN OF THE TILES is definitely a book you should have on your radar. The bulk of the story takes place during a three-day tournament weekend, though the past—both the tournament a year ago, and various memories leading up to and after that—is always nearby (even if it isn’t always freely recalled).
I really the more meta aspects of QUEEN OF THE TILES. Each chapter begins with a thematically Scrabble-playable word, it’s point value, and its definition(s). Najwa is, as both she and other character remark on, one of the few Scrabble players who cares about the meanings behind the words they use to score points, so it is unsurprising she is one of the few characters who chases after the truth behind the mysterious Instagram posts on Trina’s account. I also enjoyed the presence of the amateur documentary makers and how their interviews/videos pushed Najwa along in her own sleuthing.
And there is no shortage of people with potential motives, ranging from rivalry to romance. There are enough people in the supporting cast that I was pleasantly surprised how many of them Hanna was able to develop over course of the book. These character development moments also provided a lot of insight into Najwa, especially as her own opinions of various people were revealed or changed over the course of the tournament. The characters and their relationships were complicated and made the mystery that much more interesting.
And speaking of interesting—I loved Najwa to pieces. I really appreciate when books dive into how difficult the grieving process can be. Even a year after Trina’s death, Najwa is still struggling to handle the sudden death of her friend. Her narration frequently references her therapist’s advice on how to deal with negative/intrusive thoughts, and of course returning to the same tournament Trina died at makes things more fraught. Najwa isn’t the only one grieving, either, though other characters deal with their grief in other ways. It was refreshing to have the book place grief/anxiety/PTSD/etc. at the forefront even while a mystery was playing out.
There were many Scrabble scenes in the book, and it is to Hanna’s credit that I found them incredibly engaging despite not being much of a Scrabble player myself. Part of this is due to the tournament being Najwa’s comeback, and so the audience definitely wants her to win her games, but a lot of it has to do with how confident and competent Najwa can be when she’s playing. It is immensely satisfying to “watch” Najwa dissect her opponent’s moves, drop Scrabble championship trivia, contemplate the meaning of the words she’s playing, and strategize what to do next with her tiles. (Though of course, given all the many things Najwa is dealing with during this tournament, she doesn’t always win. It only makes the triumphs she does have all the sweeter.)
Recommendation: Pre-order it now! If you enjoy fast-paced, contemporary mysteries, QUEEN OF THE TILES is going to be a great addition to your TBR list. Author Hanna Alkaf does a great job of balancing the Scrabble tournament, mystery investigation, and mental health aspects of the book, and together they form a compelling narrative for our heroine Najwa. The book releases next week, and you’ll definitely want to get your hands on it soon.