Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf’s Queen of the Tiles is a raw, moving exploration of complicated grief, a celebration of teenage determination and a nail-biting murder mystery set at a cutthroat Scrabble tournament in Kuala Lumpur.
At last year’s Word Warrior Weekend competition, Trina Low, the titular Queen of the Tiles, made it all the way to the final round before she slumped over her board—dead. Najwa Bakri, Trina’s best friend, has been experiencing traumatic flashbacks, depression and memory loss ever since. “It’s as if Trina’s death cracked me open, and now pieces of me keep escaping, scattering themselves everywhere,” she explains.
Seeing a therapist has been helpful for Najwa, as will be attending this year’s Word Warrior Weekend. Along with ensuring that no one will tarnish Trina’s legacy, Najwa is also intent on proving that she is still an accomplished Scrabble player in her own right. This year, it’s Najwa who will become Queen of the Tiles.
Of course, other competitors have the same idea, setting the stage for round after round of precisely crafted, often mesmerizing gameplay. Queen of the Tiles brims with the skills a player must possess to become a Scrabble champion: sharp focus, quick thinking and a prodigious vocabulary. Every chapter opens with an esoteric word (plus its definition and Scrabble point value, natch). Alkaf builds an immersive, complex world but doesn’t stop there, layering in a compelling locked-room whodunit, too.
Indeed, the Word Warrior Weekend is upended when Najwa begins to receive anagrams via direct message from Trina’s long-inactive Instagram account. You wouldn’t think a word puzzle could seem threatening, but in Alkaf’s clever hands, the brainteasers foment unease and hint at a truly horrifying possibility: Could Trina have been murdered?
Scrabble frenemies become amateur sleuths, and everyone’s a suspect. During high-level Scrabble battles, shocking secrets are revealed and edgy suspense builds as the tiles click and slide. Readers will be guessing until the very end of this ensorcelling (15 points), sesquipedalian (26 points) mystery.