Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf

“But life, like Scrabble, is like that—you get the rack you get, and you just have to figure out how to make do.”

Queen of the Tiles is an entertaining mystery romp that belongs to that subgenre of YA books that combines a whodunnit type of storyline with the kind of teen dynamics at play in Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars. Similarly to a lot of these books, Queen of the Tiles takes place in a ‘confined’ setting, but rather than going for the usual prep school/high school type of backdrop, Hanna Alkaf freshens things up by having her story take place during the World Warrior Weekend, an annual Scrabble competition. This tournament takes place in a hotel in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, a setting that, you must admit, we don’t get to see often in YA. Additionally, our lead is Muslim, and we also get a very casual non-binary rep with Shuba. The story definitely has some strong The Queen’s Gambit vibes and the author depicts the various Scrabble games in a really fun and dynamic way (so that they are anything but boring) and we can see just how devoted and ambitious some of the competitors are.
Najwa Bakri, our narrator, is taking part in this tournament, the first one she’s done since the very sudden death of her best friend.

“Every player knows that words can be twisted to suit your purpose, if the board allows it, and Trina knows this better than most. She is fantastic; she ignites fantasies. She is spectacular; she attracts spectacle.”

Trina Low died during the previous year’s World Warrior Weekend. Since her death, Najwa has distanced herself from the Scrabble world, but she finds herself going back to claim Trina’s former title, that of the Queen of the Tiles. She knows that people who didn’t like Trina, and who were in turn not liked by her, are also vying for that title, and Najwa isn’t ready to give them the satisfaction of winning. Competing again however proves harder than it used to be now that Najwa is struggling with anxiety and trauma caused by Trina’s premature death. The author is really thoughtful in the way she articulates Najwa’s grieving process, capturing just how suddenly grief can engulf you, regardless of how much time has passed since the person you cared for died. Alkaf also shows how grief manifests differently in different people.

Things get harder when new posts appear on Trina’s long inactive insta. Cryptic posts hinting that her death may have been very much not an accident. Joining a long tradition of kid-turned-detectives such as Nancy Drew and the Scooby-Doo gang (both of which get mentioned in the story), Najwa begins solving the posts’ ominous word puzzles and starts questioning the other competitors, most of whom were foes of Trina. There is the pompous boy she was competing against when she died, who seemed less concerned by her dropping dead than verifying whether her death meant he’d automatically won that final round. There is Trina’s ‘other’ best-friend, an ostensibly nice and obsequious girl whose subservience to Trina definitely gives off sycophantic vibes. There is that girl who was caught in a cheating scandal, and Trina may have been responsible for stoking those cheating rumours. And, of course, Trina’s off-and-on again boyfriend Mark, a possessive type who may have grown tired of Trina’s and what he perceived to be as her ‘blasé’ attitude. While Najwa has always been aware of Trina’s thorny character, and her need to prove herself and to one-up others, during the course of her ‘amateur’ investigation she will be forced to really confront the kind of person Trina was.

“That’s just how she was; she saw something she wanted and she went for it with a laser-sharp intensity that could border on the obsessive. All or nothing, perfection or perish.”

I liked the drama, the secrecy, the rumours and gossip. The Scrabble element was really well delivered and it worked really well for the mystery clues. My only quibbles are 1) throughout the story Najwa links words that are being used or were used in a game to her past or present situation. Sometimes this was effective, but the more this device was used, the less impactful it became, and at times I found the connection between word and situation to be a bit far-fetched 2) Najwa’s ‘tells’ got pretty annoying.
The characters weren’t particularly fleshed out or memorable, some were verged on being rather silly but this subgenre isn’t exactly known for having uber nuanced characters so it didn’t really negatively impact my reading experience. I would have however liked for Trina to have been portrayed in a slightly different light, as she ultimately seems a bit of a mean queen-bee cliché. I liked the lack of romance and Najwa made for a rather endearing protagonist. Their resolution to the mystery was a bit of a letdown, as I found the identity of the person behind those posts far too obvious. It would have been more satisfying to make someone else the culprit. There was also a metaphor about Mark being “a conquistador, trying to impose his will on Trina, colonize her spirit and reap her charms for himself, bend her to his definition of what a girlfriend ought to be” which struck me as a rather unhappy comparison to make.
In general, I did like the references we get, especially when they added a dose of humor and levity to the story’s ongoings (“Honestly. Murder. What do you think this is, an episode of Riverdale?”).
Still, I found this engrossing and fun read. If you are looking for a light-hearted whodunnit that focuses on a group of ambitious and possibly backstabby professional scrabblers, look no further.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼


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Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is an engaging start to an action-driven fantasy series that is written in a winsome prose that is guaranteed to appeal to fans of Rick Riordan. Like Riordan’s books, Zhao combines an action-driven quest with a coming of age tale exploring the highs and lows of being a 12yr boy. I loved the way the author managed to incorporate—with varying degrees of self-awareness—existing tropes of the ‘chosen one/kids with powers’ genre whilst adding new dimensions and elements to their story. Additionally, unlike a lot of MG books, Zhao addresses serious and topical issues/realities in a very clear-eyed and straightforward manner.

Zachary Ying, our main character, has tried to distance himself from Chinese culture in order to fit in his white majority school. His mom, who is his sole carer, works long hours, so Zack spends a lot of his time playing Mythrealm. One day at school he comes across Simon who seems eager to get to know Zack. Turns out that Zack, the host of the spirit of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who, alongside Simon, host to Tang Taizong, and later on Melissa, host to Wu Zetian, are tasked with a crucial mission: they have to seal the portal to the Chinese underworld before the Ghost Month. Zack doesn’t really want to be part of all of this but with his mom’s life in jeopardy, he has little choice in the matter. Unlike Simon and Melissa, however, Zack’s emperor was not fully able to possess him and was forced to tie himself to Zack’s AR gaming headset (which lends many of the action sequences a gameplay quality). To rectify this Zack flies to China to strengthen his bond with his Chinese heritage, all the while being chased by baddies…but as their mission unfolds and Zack learns more about the emperors’ reigns, he begins to worry that he is not working for the good guys either.

Throughout the course of the narrative, the author references superhero comics, games, anime (i mean, code geass gets a mention which will always be a win in my books), as well as, you guessed it, Avatar: The Last Airbender. The narrative is quite self-aware in that these references often come at an apt moment, and usually poke fun at the existence/perseverance of said trope/storyline (for example with the ‘fridging’ of zack’s mom). I liked this meta aspect of the narrative as it gives the storytelling a playful edge that serves to counterbalance the more serious themes/scenes. Through Zack’s storyline, the author is able to explore the everyday realities of being a Chinese-American kid who feels pressured by his white peers to distance himself from his own Chinese heritage. Additionally, Zack is Hui, an ethnoreligious minority group with Islamic heritage and/or adhere to Islam. Like other minority groups in China, the Hui can be and are discriminated against by the current Chinese government. Zack’s father was executed after protesting the government’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, and this makes his journey to China all the more fraught. While the author criticizes the current Chinese government, through Zack’s quest they are also able to showcase their love for Chinese culture and history, presenting us with a complex image of this country, its past and present. The author’s depiction of and discussions around China oppose the kind of monolithic and homogenous image of this country that sadly seems to prevail in a lot of western media and public discourses. The China that emerges from these pages is enriched by its expansive history and many idiosyncrasies (other MG authors, please take notes!).

I loved the way they incorporate historical facts in the action sequences, so when we are introduced to a new historical figure we get a punchy introduction giving us an overview of their life. There were instances where I wish the author had not added American, or otherwise western, equivalents when introducing a certain figure or when touching upon a certain historical period (we often are given enough context to understand the cultural/historical significance of said person/period). Still, I really appreciated how the author avoids the usual good/bad dichotomy that tends to be the norm in a lot of MG books. Zack repeatedly questions the past behaviours and present motivations of the emperors.
The chapters all have funny titles that were very much a la Riordan. The banter between the various emperors and historical figures was very entertaining, even in those instances where it was trying a bit hard to be ‘young/relatable’. I loved the way the narrative includes and discusses historical-related things, as it very much reminded me of the author’s youtube content, which—as you may or may not know—I am besotted by. While I thought that the historical characters were equal parts interesting and amusing, the contemporary ones, except Zack, were not quite as dynamic. Simon and Melissa in particular lacked dimension and seemed the type of stock characters you find in any ‘trio’ (melissa in particular is the kind of aggravating sidekick who is meant to be a ‘spunky girl’ but comes across as kind of a jerk). I didn’t like them that much either, even before the latter half of the novel. Zack deserves some real/better friends.

Anyway, Zack steals the show as this is ultimately his story. He goes through a lot in this book and is forced to question the kind of person he wants to be/become. He makes mistakes, and he learns from them. He knows he wants to be stronger but finds his notion of strength to be challenged more than once. I wish that the narratives had called out a bit more people like Melissa who mistake his moments of vulnerability or hesitancy as signs of weakness or a ‘lack of moral fibre’. Dio mio, he’s a KID, leave my boy alone. I don’t know, I felt protective of Zack and because of this found myself rather peed off by anyone who tried to make him feel ashamed of being sensitive. But I digress. Overall I thought this was an enjoyable book that manages to blend together history and technology. If you a fan of heroes’ quests you should definitely give this one a try. Added bonuses: hints of casual gay rep + positive Muslim rep.

I for one liked it a lot more than the author’s debut novel, which I sadly was unable to enjoy (i know, don’t get me started if i could actively control and change my response to that book i would). I found the author’s prose to be a lot more confident in this one and their style really worked for this MG-type of storytelling. This is the kind of book I wish had been around when I was a 12yr old as I would have been able to love it, whereas now I can only just ‘like’ it. Anyway, I liked the humor and the historical facts, so this gets a thumbs up from me and I look forward to its follow-up.

ps: i just remember but some of zack’s reactions to learning some of the horrific things the emperors did are gold

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

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