I am so so so happy that this book didn’t disappoint.
Y’all know I was completely freaking out when I found out that there was going to be a Malaysian Muslim main character solving a potential murder mystery. I was dying to get this book, and my friends and family can attest to that since they were subjected to my endless frantic screaming.
I actually contacted the publisher (my first time ever doing so btw! yay for new experiences!!) and very professionally, kindly,
but totally begged asked them for an ARC of the book.
and I got it.
*cue intense hysterical laugh-crying, jumping up and down, and lots of squealing*
I’m not being extra nor am I exaggerating; that was my actual physical IRL reaction when they said yes. There are so many firsts tied to this book for me: first YA mystery book I’m seeing with a Muslim main character, set somewhere that’s not a US boarding/highschool, first time I directly contacted a publisher asking for an ARC, first time getting approved for a book that I personally requested, and also the first time that I actually literally freaked out and physically fangirled when I received the copy.
My family was staring at me in shock because I have never ever shown that much excitement for anything in my life. And once I calmed down enough to write a coherent and very professional reply, all the fear and doubt came crashing in.
What if after all this anticipation and excitement, I didn’t like the book?
So I didn’t read it. For two months. Partly because I was afraid of being disappointed, and partly because of my somewhat reading slump. Mostly though, I was so nervous I wouldn’t enjoy it.
But I did. And I am so thankful and so happy that I did.
Before I get into the full review, here are a couple of disclaimers: there are no spoilers in this review; I was given a copy of this book in exchange for a review, however, all opinions and thoughts are my own.
Without further ado, let’s get started!
Young Adult, Mystery, Muslim-Rep, Malaysian-Rep
Queen of the Tiles
by Hanna Alkaf
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.
trigger warnings*: death, anxiety, panic attacks, depressive episodes, grief
*these may not be all but are some things that I personally noticed
Let’s start off by talking about our protagonist Najwa Bakri.
She’s our main character whose best friend, Trina Low, quite dramatically died during a Scrabble tournament. We get to see and know post-Incident Najwa who is battling a lot of grief, anxiety, and possibly depression*. The book starts off with her deciding to return to that same tournament where Trina died so she can win the tournament in Trina’s memory.
*i am no doctor, but that’s what it seemed like to me; she may have also said it herself
There were a lot of raw emotions that Najwa experienced that I couldn’t help but feel as well. She’s lost her friend, her best friend, and she’s been a walking mess for a whole year and is still reeling from the incident. Who can blame her? It’s a horrible thing for anyone to lose their friend, but it’s even worse to see them die in front of you. She knows that she can’t continue living the way she is, and she’s trying to make a change, but that doesn’t make the journey any easier.
I felt so much for Najwa, and I was rooting for her from the start. When the Instagram posts started showing up suggesting that Trina’s death hadn’t been an accident and may have been intentional murder, I felt bad that Najwa had to have the wound ripped open again just when she’d started to finally let it heal.
even though the idea of potential murder was technically the entire reason why I wanted to read the book anyway
There were a nice handful of side characters who were all in some way connected to Trina, either as rivals in the competition or friends like Najwa was. Personally, I felt like I related a lot to Yasmin because she’s the caretaker sort of friend. The one who’s always trying to make sure everyone’s okay and eating well, scolding people when they do/say things that shouldn’t be done or said, and in general, just Mothering everyone around her even though she’s the same age (or younger in my case lol) as them.
I loved that even though it didn’t look like she and Najwa were super close, at least compared to how Najwa was with Trina, Yasmin still looked out for Najwa and helped her when she got overwhelmed and had panic attacks. That was so kind of her and it made me like her so much more.
Most of the other characters I had a healthy suspicion of, and generally just didn’t really like. Mark especially, being Trina’s boyfriend, I really did not trust him. Not because I was certain he had something to do with Trina’s death, but it seemed to me that he just wanted to clear his name as suspicion fell on him, while at the same time repairing his friendship with Najwa. It didn’t seem like he cared about Trina as much as you’d expect.
Usually, when I’m reading mysteries/thrillers, I tend to not want to judge the significant other too much since everyone automatically assumes that they are guilty or involved in some way (especially if the victim is female). And statistically speaking, maybe it is true that there’s a larger likelihood the boyfriend did it. However, since that’s always the initial assumption, I go out of my way to give them the benefit of the doubt unless they’re just too shady to do so.
And well, more often than not with books, it’s the characters you least expect that are somehow connected to the whole thing, so there’s not much point focusing on the character that the author puts all the attention on.
In this case, though, everyone looked shady at some point, even Najwa herself, so it kept me second-guessing who really was as they seemed.
Also, a special shoutout to Tweedledee and Tweedledum. They were incredibly pesky and annoying (I imagined they were like twin 8-year-olds the entire time, even though I just now found out they are actually supposed to be about 13), but the fact that Najwa called them Tweedledee and Tweedledum for almost the entirety of the book gave me a little comic relief from the web of drama and mystery that this plot was.
Ah, the plot. In my opinion, 75% of what determines a successful mystery/thriller is whether the plot is believable and engaging. If the plot is a mess or it bores you to the point where you couldn’t care less how it’s all resolved, then the book has failed as a mystery.
The other 25% is the characters: for a great plot to work, we need a nice cast of suspects and a protagonist that actually does a good job of detecting for us. We can’t be in the book ourselves to find these clues, and being stuck with a protagonist who has no idea what they’re doing (looking at you Audrey Rose; it’s a testament to how infuriated she made me that I still remember how terrible she was in that book nearly 2.5 years later) is a special sort of torture, especially when the plot is actually interesting.
Thankfully, Queen of the Tiles did not suffer from a boring plot, nor from a useless protagonist.
The setting of the mystery was different from what is typical with YA contemporary mysteries. For one, it doesn’t take place in the US or even the West, and instead takes place in Malaysia which I loved to see! The inclusion of the Malay language and food references made me love the book so much more, especially as I had just been learning about nasi lemak and other Malaysian foods right before I read the book. I was so excited to recognize and know what the foods were.
Quick sidenote about the Muslim rep:
There were some subtle references to Islam, what with Najwa and her mom wearing hijab, and also a mention of prayer. It felt really normal though in that it didn’t become preachy or go on a tangent to explain Islam/why people wear hijab etc. It was just a part of life that nobody blinked twice at, and I love that it was so normal and not the overwhelming focus of the book.
The setting is also different in that it didn’t take place at a high/boarding school, which is kind of the usual setting, but instead at a tournament, and a Scrabble tournament at that. I liked the Scrabble element a lot; the new vocab and the love of words that Najwa expressed made me appreciate the game a lot more than I originally did.
As for the mystery itself, it was honestly so well done. Like I said in The Characters section, I really liked that there was a healthy amount of suspicion on all the characters and that the mystery wasn’t as straightforward as it seemed. The ending was something I did not expect, and I’m both disappointed in myself for not guessing correctly, but also pleasantly surprised by how it all came together.
I don’t want to spoil anything more, so we’ll just leave it at that. Be sure to read the book to find out what happens!
To summarize, here’s my re-writing of the book’s synopsis:
Reigning Scrabble queen, the glamourous, mysterious, and quick-witted Trina Low was playing a game when she slumped on the board and died. Her death was not considered murder, and a year has since passed since the incident. On the very first night of the same tournament where she died, her Instagram comes back to life with mysterious posts suggesting her death may not have been as blameless as it seemed.
Surrounded by the same kids who were there when Trina died, Najwa must now find out who could be responsible. Trina had a lot of rivals, but was someone bitter enough to commit murder? Was Trina really as perfect as Najwa remembers her to be? And what is it that happened on that fateful weekend that Najwa just can’t remember?
So much is revealed and nothing is quite as it seems in this modern take on the classic whodunit.
And y’all? I completely enjoyed every moment of it.
About the Author:
Hanna Alkaf is the author of the Freeman Award-winning THE WEIGHT OF OUR SKY (Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster) and the Kirkus Prize finalist THE GIRL AND THE GHOST (HarperCollins). She graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University and spent over ten years writing everything from B2B marketing emails to investigative feature articles, from non-profit press releases to corporate brochures. She now spends her time making it up as she goes along, both as an author of fiction and as a mom. Hanna lives in Kuala Lumpur with her family. Her next books are the upcoming YA mystery QUEEN OF THE TILES (Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster 2022), the YA magic school anthology THE GRIMOIRE OF GRAVE FATES (Delacorte 2022), and the MG fantasy LITTLE RED (HarperCollins 2023).
Queen of the Tiles will be published on April 21, 2022
Some questions for you:
- Do you plan on reading Queen of the Tiles?
- Have you ever physically freaked out when you got a copy of a book you were anticipating?
- Have you read any of Alkaf’s previous books before? Did you like them?
Let’s chat in the comments below!