Title: To Best The Boys
Author: Mary Weber
Publication Date: 19th March 2019
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Genre: Young Adult, (Light) Fantasy
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 really wanted to love this book. The premise sounded so incredible and as soon as I read the summary To Best The Boys went straight onto my TBR list.
For this reason it is with a heavy heart that I say, the story didn’t engage me as much as I thought it would and for while I couldn’t pinpoint why.
At first I thought it was because of Beryll and his voice which really emphasised how ‘proper’ he was with addressing the girls as ‘Miss’ – he is the only character who regularly does this; if more of the characters did this, it wouldn’t have been much of an issue. Not to mention, his name always threw me through a loop – I naturally associate the name Beryll as a female name… it’s not common as a male name where I live.
And then I thought, no it’s not just Beryll. The book was sold as a fantasy and there weren’t really many elements of it beyond ghouls and ghosts, and a little bit of (unexplained) magic when we get to the maze.
I couldn’t motivate myself to pick the book up for about a week, and when I did it was a scene where the ghouls are present, and I realised what the problem was for me. It wasn’t the lack of fantasy element; in fact the story itself flowed well enough until the ghosts and ghouls are mentioned, and make an appearance. They just felt so out of place, and I really don’t know what purpose they serve besides providing some ‘tension’ and a ‘moment’ for the main character and her love interest.
When the ghouls and ghosts aren’t present, To Best The Boys can be an easy enough read. Instead of engaging me, as fantasy elements usually do, they made me want to put the book down, and I was wishing that these scenes would come to an end.
Okay, now that I’ve voiced that, let’s move onto the characters.
- Rhen is the protagonist, a scientist, and dyslexic – and it is nice to see this representation within literature.
- The thing that drives her from the very beginning is to save her mother from this mysterious disease which has killed a number of people already, and ultimately find a cure. She’s very focussed and never loses sight of this goal.
- As a reader, I didn’t find that I related all that much to Rhen. I’m not particularly scientifically minded, or have much of an interest in it, so it could be that since it is a big part of her character.
- Lute is Rhen’s main love interest, and a fisherman, who also winds up entering the maze.
- He is also the only one to figure out Rhen is in their group in the maze which I suppose is meant to highlight how much he takes note of her when she’s around.
- Lute is shown to be an all round good guy. He is the main breadwinner in his family, and helps to care for his disabled younger brother who is autistic (he also has downs syndrome according to the author’s note, but this isn’t very clear in the actual text).
- As a reader we are clearly meant to root for him and Rhen to end up together – only I didn’t. I just didn’t feel like there was any real chemistry, and I think the fact that only a week or so is covered in the bulk of the book doesn’t really help.
- Selini is Rhen’s cousin, who b all accounts leads a very opposite life to Rhen. She has a more privileged upbringing given that she is part of the upper class, whilst Rhen is lower class (due to her mother’s choice to marry a man beneath her status).
- This doesn’t stop her from worrying about getting her hands dirty, or wanting to enter the maze with Rhen.
- Honestly, my feelings towards Selini are warmer than those I have for the protagonist.
- Beryll is Rhen’s best friend, and from the very first moment he appeared on page I felt an instant disconnect from his character.
- He is accompanying Rhen on one of her many escapades to collect tissue from a recently dead body to help him prepare for the maze… but I just can’t. He’s more of a hindrance than a help.
- As a character he is generally addressing the girls as ‘Miss [insert surname]’ and it’s just so off putting when almost every other character calls people by their first name, and will only very rarely call them ‘Miss’.
- Beryll is also Selini’s love interest, and I don’t ship it.
- This should have been the main focus of the book. It was the premise of this that placed it firmly on my TBR list. Instead, we get 100 pages of the actual competition which isn’t enough, especially when the author has spent the first half of the book leading upto the competition which only covers two days. It left me wanting more.
- Another thing is that this maze seemed specifically designed to cater to Rhen’s strengths, and she had to be the one to figure everything out, even if it took her a while. I understand that she is the protagonist, but it kind of made the other characters look less intelligent than they were – and there was another group that made it through the stages.
- Personally, I would have much rathered that the group Rhen ends up going through the stages of the maze with had been split up, at least until the ‘overnight’ bit.
- I’m not going to lie here, it left me underwhelmed. Rhen’s purpose for going into the maze and getting the scholarship is well established at the start, and whilst there is some semblance of hope, there isn’t a resolution to this.
- We do however find out the cause of the disease, and I’m with Rhen – how didn’t she put two and two together and think: could this be what happened?
- The reader isn’t even given the opportunity though to figure this out for themselves. We just get an information dump as Rhen figures it out.
My final note on this is that the whole reasoning behind Rhen disguising herself as a boy to enter the maze because it’s a competition for only boys is pretty much non-existent since the letter at the start explicitly states “gentlepersons” – no specification of gender at all. Sure it would be unprecedented for a female to take part, but it’s not forbidden.
I feel like I’ve been a bit of a negative nelly in this review. I don’t intend to be, I’m just very disappointed.
The inclusion of different types of representation really saved this book from getting a lower rating, and most of it is clear in the text without having to be spelled out to the reader.
Personally, no, but if you like the premise, I would encourage you to read some other reviews from people who have enjoyed the book. They might highlight some aspects that I might not have picked up on or shine a different light on the narrative. After all, tastes are different, and what works for one person might not work for another.
I know that a lot of people have quite enjoyed this book, and I’m falling into a minority here who was underwhelmed and disappointed by it.
Please let me know your own thoughts in the comments.