Today’s review is for To Best The Boys by Mary Weber. Don’t let the short page count fool you, because there is an absolute ton packed into this baby including deep discussions of class stratified societies and gender roles. And despite this all, it never feels like an overwhelming or heavy read as we follow a plucky heroine on her journey to find a cure, love, and higher education. Beautifully imagined and expertly written, To Best The Boys is Coco Channel meets The Maze Runner, and it’s an absolute must read!
Title: To Best The Boys
Author: Mary Weber
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication Date: March 5, 2019
Genre: Fiction, YA, Fantasy, Dystopian
Themes: Family, Friendship, Survival,
My Rating: 4.5/ 5
Every year for the past fifty-four years, the residents of Pinsbury Port receive a mysterious letter inviting all eligible-aged boys to compete for an esteemed scholarship to the all-male Stemwick University. Every year, the poorer residents look to see that 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 are trained in wifely duties and men are encouraged into 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’s ready for a girl who doesn’t know her place. And not everyone survives the maze.
A lot of this book will feel familiar to readers: There are two distinct classes, uppers and lowers (I’m sure you can figure that one out), that makes achieving valuable social change difficult; then there’s rigid and firmly entrenched gender roles, where the men and boys get educations and the women and girls tend to the home – any one who breaks from this pattern is seen as a rebel who needs to be tamed; and then there’s he whole dystopian survive the contest trope. But guess what, these things are familiar because they work, and in To Best The Boys they work incredibly well together.
We’re brought into a society where courtship is formalized, exposed ankles are scandalous, and walking home with the wrong fellow can ruin your reputation. Enter Rhen Tellur – she’s bright, driven, irreverent and against all odds an absolutely brilliant scientist. She’s not afraid of getting her hands dirty, or even covered in the effluence of a dead body, she’s determined to find a cure for the crippling disease that’s making it’s way through the Lower community in Pinsbury Port – especially since the Uppers only seem to care about their parties, pastries, and stationary choices.
Matters are complicated but the fact that Rhen belongs to both worlds – her mother was once an Upper who lost her standing when she married a brilliant (but Lower) alchemist. As a result, Rhen must divide her time on either side of the river attending Upper parties with her cousin Seleni only to return home to the working class community in which she lives to run experiments with her father in their basement laboratory. Why the duality when Rhen could easily accept what’s offered from the Uppers? He mother has been hit with Crippling Disease.
Oh, and lets just make things a little more complicated – brilliant though she may be, the last hope of the lowers, she’s also dyslexic.
Cue the moment of awakening where the next Katniss/ Tris/ Eowyn is born. Rhen boldly says the ‘hull’ with it all and enters an all-boys competition to win an education and hopefully save her mother. And let’s be honest here, I fell for this story hook, line and sinker (fishing pun and reference to lover-boy Lute fully intended). I can’t say too much more about the plot without risking spoilers other than Rhen’s time in the maze is fast paced, exhilarating, and utterly amazing.
The supporting characters are wonderful as well – Beryll with his constant screams and disapproval, Seleni with her unwavering commitment to supporting the ones she loves, Vincent with his ridiculous ego unbearable condescension, and Lute with his brooding and unpredictable moods. Now add in a healthy dose of magic, ghouls in the mist, sirens out at sea, and a parliament that only serves the rich and you have the perfect recipe for a smashing read.
The only reason why this baby didn’t land a 5* review is that some of the bigger issues, such as gender disparity, are too often and too obviously stated. I think that the story itself was strong enough to cary this message without being outright, and the constant reminders almost devalues the intelligence of the reader when it comes to drawing conclusions and making connections. Don’t get me wrong, my feminist heart is rejoicing after reading this sucker, I’m just someone that believes in the power of a whisper over that of a shout.
Regardless, would I recommend this book? Absolutely! It’s fun, thoughtful, challenging, and surprisingly sensitive with regards to it’s diverse and special needs characters in a way that dystopian literature often is not. To Best The Boys is a thrilling read, and I can only hope to see more of Rhen, Lute, Seleni, and Beryll in the future.
Many thanks to NetGalley for providing a Advanced Reader Copy in exchange for an honest review.