“To Best The Boys” by Mary Weber
Source: ARC in exchange for an honest review
Genre: Young Adult Fiction, Fantasy
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.
I’m a total sucker for books where young ladies rebel against the cultural norms of time and stick it to The Man. To Best The Boys is exactly what I had hoped it would be. Rhen, in an effort to aid her dying mother, enters a contest to survive a labyrinth and win a scholarship. That was enough to draw me in. I loved Rhen’s spunk. Her desire of knowledge (and willingness to get a bit dirty) reminded me of Audrey Rose from Stalking Jack the Ripper.
I particularly enjoyed Weber’s acknowledgement of different types of women and how there’s no wrong path. Rhen wants to pursue ‘manly’ pursuit such as science and education. Seleni wants to marry her beau and be a wife and mother. It’s refreshing to see two women supporting each other’s dreams as worthy and valuable.
My biggest complaint with the story was how long it took to get to the labyrinth and we didn’t stay nearly long enough for my taste. It took approximately half the book before Rhen enters the labyrinth. The first half of the book was necessary build up: the disease, Rhen’s family, Rhen not fitting in area of town, the clash between the Uppers and Lowers, other elements that set the mood. All of that is crucial but I was ready to jump into the labyrinth.
I don’t want to spoil too much about the labyrinth because it’s a thrilling adventure. You really never know what to expect and you’re kept on your toes. The puzzles really are difficult! I wanted more. Puzzles are my favorite.
This book is really difficult to categorize into a genre. It could be a fantasy because there are some particularly fantastical elements in the labyrinth. I would almost say it reads more like a historical fiction (despite the fact that there’s no specified time period; it just reads as old-timey).
All in all, it’s a refreshing stand-alone about fighting for your dreams and not letting anything stand in your way.