Queen of the Tiles

Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf is a youth mystery novel set amidst the tournament Scrabble scene in Malaysia. The author obviously did her research, as she covered tournament specifics accurately and dropped names of actual champion players, all of whom I have met. I did find it odd, however, that on four occasions when writing about games in progress, she had players announce “Your move” after finishing their turns. This is not a protocol of tournament play. In fact, once players end their turns they must not say a thing. Thus players would never announce the blatantly obvious: that their own turns have ended and that their opponents may now play. Hanna was taking dramatic licence to create a sense of suspense and high tension among the top level of Scrabble competition, but as a player within this realm, I found her invented high stakes to be comical.

Trina Low, a Scrabble champion recognized as Queen of the Tiles, died suddenly during a tournament game. She was the most popular woman on the scene, admired by women who wanted to be her and by men who wanted to date or sleep with her. One year after her death, at a major Scrabble tournament, Najwa Bakri, the young woman depicted on the cover, uses the opportunity of a large Scrabble gathering to try and find out the culprit and his or her motives. I started this book on the day that Her Majesty died, thus the line about the mysterious death of Trina hit me with a punch:

“Now that the Queen is no longer here to occupy her throne…”

Hanna filled her dialogue with Malay code switching. After the first couple of instances I used Google Translate but then realized that the Malay text wasn’t offering me anything that I couldn’t intuitively figure out, so I abandoned the simultaneous translation lookups. It would only have been convenient for me to look up the translations when I was reading if I was also logged on to the Internet at the same time. I imagine most people are in fact on-line all day long so they might very well take advantage of web-based translation programs. This novel is meant for ages twelve and up, especially grades seven through nine, so I imagine they would be.

I am not an avid reader of contemporary youth fiction but this book depicted teens and young adults glued to their phones and living their lives via Instagram. I felt completely alienated from these young people, ready to throttle their necks at the amount of time they’re wasting on inconsequential trivialities. The characters jumped at every chime notification and followed their friends as devoted disciples. No wonder kids–as well as adults–are so stressed out by the multiverse of virtual realities, where everyone’s photo is filtered, tweaked and airbrushed. I did not find the characters who filled Najwa’s Scrabble world to be believable because they were so shallow, yet also Scrabble geniuses. Granted, young people’s problems are different from issues that affect quinquagenarians so maybe a reader in grade eight would identify with the importance of Instagram updates.

Najwa solved the mystery, which was cleverly based on a series of words that might only be known as commonplace among the Scrabble elite. Her mathematical formula was intelligent and one of the words in the clues, janiform, was wrung to reveal even more secrets. I tried to play along with the clues the killer was feeding her. As a tournament player I could picture myself embedded in her mystery and was happy she got so much of it right, however I didn’t buy the motivations of Trina’s killer. By the end of the book I wasn’t even interested in who among the Scrabble players it was.

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