Queen of Tiles Reigns Over Scrabble & the Legacies We Leave

Lainey reviews Hanna Alkaf’s new YA novel about the world of competitive Scrabble, ‘Queen of Tiles.’

“After all, aren’t we all just an amalgamation of others’ perceptions?”

— Hanna Alkaf, Queen of Tiles

Queen of the Tiles poses the question of who people truly are, or more accurately how different perspectives of the same person can paint different pictures in this thrilling and suspenseful novel by Hanna Alkaf. 

Protagonist and narrator Najwa still struggles a year after the death of her best friend. From the very first pages, we know her friend Trina was someone who could carry some incredible influence. While Najwa may have had Trina on a pedestal, not everyone did. True to its setting at a Scrabble tournament, it’s a set of eerie words that start off the investigation, and sometimes even lead it, via Trina’s Instagram account that suggest there was more to her death than meets the eye. As Najwa digs deeper into Trina’s death, we learn through the eyes of several characters that while Trina might not have had masks with different people, the way she was viewed could still vary. The memory of a person, like the person themselves, can carry its own weight. We see that with Najwa as she returns to the annual Scrabble tournament with the intention of honoring her friend’s legacy. Meanwhile, there are others who are eager to take the mantle. 

Queen of the Tiles also has a unique story of grief. Najwa has already accepted Trina’s death, but that isn’t the end of the experience. This novel explores that settled kind of feeling, even while Najwa investigates her death. Mourning doesn’t end after acceptance, and this book shows that as several characters live with Trina’s memory and the lasting influence she had on them. The wistful ways the late Trina is talked about makes the reader feel her absence in the same way the characters do, making her more than a simple plot device. Aside from the nostalgia Najwa experiences, she also learns to live for herself. The more she reflects on her relationship with Trina, the more she thinks about moving forward and learning to live without her. With Trina having been such a big part of her life, and with how influential she’s shown to have been, becoming a new version of herself is something Najwa finds herself doing. 

Alkaf’s novel takes place in Malaysia, giving the setting a more cultured feel than the typical YA novel. Najwa proudly wears a hijab, and other Muslim customs are often noted. The characters sometimes even shift into native languages occasionally. While there are no direct translations when the characters aren’t speaking English, there’s enough context clues to assure no important details are being lost in translation. Not only is there Muslim representation, but one of the primary supporting characters is non-binary, going by they/them pronouns. 

The tension in Queen of the Tiles is consistently built at a steady pace, keeping you at the edge of your seat. The stakes continue to feel high, even without any real-life threatening situations. The paranoia the culprit plants is just as effective in its execution. 

Alkaf’s novel is a touching story about reflection of the past while managing to also be a thrilling suspense. 

Queen of Tiles by Hanna Alkaf is available now at your local independent bookstore or wherever fine books are sold.

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