Published by Thomas Nelson
Published on 19 March 2019
Genres: Fantasy, Friendship, Girls & Women, Young Adult
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Perfect for fans of The Scorpio Races and Caraval, To Best the Boys is a new fantasy novel from the beloved and bestselling author of the Storm Siren trilogy, Mary Weber.
The task is simple: Don a disguise.Survive the labyrinth.Best the boys.In a thrilling new fantasy from the bestselling author of the Storm Siren Trilogy, one girl makes a stand against society and enters a world made exclusively for boys.
Every year for the past fifty-four years, the residents of Pinsbury Port have received a mysterious letter inviting all eligible-aged boys to compete for an esteemed scholarship to the all-male Stemwick University. The poorer residents look to see if their names are on the list. The wealthier look to see how likely their sons are to survive. And Rhen Tellur opens it to see if she can derive which substances the ink and parchment are created from, using her father's microscope.
In the province of Caldon, where women train in wifely duties and men pursue collegiate education, sixteen-year-old Rhen Tellur wants nothing more than to become a scientist. As the poor of her seaside town fall prey to a deadly disease, she and her father work desperately to find a cure. But when her mum succumbs to it as well? Rhen decides to take the future into her own hands--through the annual all-male scholarship competition.
With her cousin, Seleni, by her side, the girls don disguises and enter Mr. Holm's labyrinth, to best the boys and claim the scholarship prize. Except not everyone is ready for a girl who doesn't know her place. And not everyone survives the deadly maze.
Welcome to the labyrinth.
I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
I’ve read some of Mary Webber’s previous books, so I know that I enjoy her writing when her characters aren’t full of dumb ideas and even dumber actions.
Luckily, To Best The Boys stars a female scientist in the misogynistic world designed to keep her nothing more than a placid housewife, providing for and driving her husband’s success at the expense of her own. That meant than Rhen, our heroine, had to be smart. And one of the smartest thing she did was disguise herself as a boy and enter a competition that wasn’t specifically and strictly gentlemen only, even though everyone assumed it was.
There was a long build up to the actual competition where we got to see Rhen interacting with her world, facing up against casual sexism and misogyny and a suitor who just expected her to marry him without ever asking her what she wanted. We saw a fantasy world that seemed on the verge of industrialism, a mishmash of pre-Victorian politics and attitudes fused with a modern quasi-British vernacular that kept you always wondering at the actual setting – until the horror monsters were unveiled, like ghouls that stalk the streets at night, and sirens in the water, both hunting human victims to feast on. The competition doesn’t start until well past the half-way mark, and although we got to see very clearly Rhen realising she was eligible and figuring out just how to enter the competition, and we got to see some typical girl-dressed-as-boy tropes such as cutting her hair, darkening her face, donning boy clothing to disguise herself, and trying to disguise her feminine walk, we didn’t some one of my other favourite girl-dressed-as-boy tropes such a breast binding (she was flat-chested so didn’t even think of it) or remembering always to lower her voice.
One of the best things about this book were not only Rhen’s struggle against a society trying to stuff her into a tiny little box, but her best friend, rich cousin Seleni, who joined her on her quest for masculine domination. Seleni was the flip side of feminism: she made a choice to be a wife and mother to her beau Beryll, and she was happy with that choice, and she even had to tell Rhen off when Rhen insisted she continue on the contest rather than stay back and look after Beryll.
Beryll was also an awesome character. It’s already established that Seleni and Beryll are courting, and at first painted as a tightly repressed nerd, over-polite and aghast at girls showing their ankles, there was one point where he had to take off his shirt and all of a sudden became ridiculously hot and heroic. It was like Ned Flander’s reveal in The Simpsons.
While in this case having a relationship already established helped with secondary characters development, Rhen’s pre-existing relationship with Lute fell a little flat. Obvious that they are dancing around each other, Rhen’s inability to stand up for herself made Lute unbearably jealous that she had apparently chosen another over him. With poor communication skills, the two were destined to be romantic, right? Ony because Rhen was already loopy for him and he her, the forced conflict felt contrived, and I wasn’t convinced that fiery, mouthy Rhen would never stand up for herself. That was why all the boys were joking about wifing her, except that her fire wasn’t consistent.
I also felt like the stakes weren’t quite aligned in a way that made sense. Rhen wanted to win the competition so that she could go to university, complete a three or four year degree (unclear), and work on finding a cure for her mum. This seems like it would take a long time: she’d only be accepted in the winter, and then who knows how long it would take before she was allowed to run her own experiments. The other people dying of this disease died within a week. Rhen’s mum managed to hang on – barely – for months because of the experiments her dad has been trying on her. So basically, Rhen’s mum could slip away at any point, which is made clear in the novel. However, it’s only until AFTER Rhen has completed the competition does she begin contemplating staying to look after her mother. She literally didn’t even think of it until it became a convenient and unconvincing conflict. The entire novel I was thinking, this plan of Rhen’s seems really long-term, and her mum could die at any second. It seems very odd.
Overall this was a highly enjoyable novel if you can engage your suspension of disbelief and accept the fantastical world it’s built in. Rhen was smart and capable with room for character growth, and although I wasn’t really into the romance, the secondary characters (and unexpected villain) made up for that. If you’ve enjoyed Weber’s other books I’d recommend this, and if you enjoy your Scorpio Races/Maze Runner/PG Hunger Games type teenage competitions heavily sprinkled with liberal doses of feminism, then this is not a book to miss out on.