To Best The Boys By Mary Weber
The task is simple: Don a disguise. Survive the labyrinth . . . Best the 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.
To Best the Boys was, for me, a book of contradictions.
This was perhaps one of the first times that I had an aspect of a story that I liked and didn’t like at the same time. Ultimately, I think that’s a wonderful thing. This book authentically shared some ideas to think on and succeeded in getting me to think about it. So I’ll present my ideas below, but I highly encourage others to read it and see what conclusions you draw.
I was ecstatic to see sexism being dealt with in a Christian book. It was one of the things that drew me to it. I am in no way saying women are better than men or that all men are evil. Men and women are created as equal in Christ and there are good and bad examples in any gender. The fact is, while our world has come a long way, sexism is still a thing, and so many women are coming face to face with it every day. This book comes alongside girls and women who have been told they have no place to speak, that they are less than, and that they are only good for whatever they can do. I found it to be a relatable and beautiful thing.
You could tell that the author made an effort to not make all her men sexist jerks. Whether or not you like those characters will probably depend on your tastes, but the extra effort went a long way.
The third quarter of the book blew me away. The series of tests inside the maze—I couldn’t put it down!
It was also neat to see a female-empowering book that has to do with math and science. While I’m not a math and science girl myself, there are plenty of us who are, and the representation was much overdue.
Speaking of representation, a number of disabilities are included in the story—but the story isn’t really about them. (For instance, Rhen has dyslexia, but the whole book isn’t about her bemoaning her dyslexia and trying to get rid of it.) This approach helps to normalize disabilities and to show that those who have them are people just like everyone else.
The idea of "I belong to me" was an interesting one. I do believe it's something girls need to hear and is a healthy thing to learn. At first glance, I thought it unnecessarily left God out of the equation. Or did it? The idea of "I have value just because I'm me" automatically prompts the question of Who put that value there. This story never says God's name, but He's in there.
However, those aspects above had a side I wasn’t quite as sure about. Repeat: It made me think, which was wonderful! And I might change my opinions in a couple weeks or months or even years after more thought. Who knows? I feel like this book will stick with me.
I was reading along, enjoying the rare YA book where the female protagonist isn’t having romantic feelings for anyone, when WHAM. There Lute was. Don’t get me wrong. I like Lute and all, and I think he was probably necessary to show the “good man” representation of this issue, as well as to show that love/romance/marriage aren’t bad. But could he have done it without being in love with Rhen?
A little background. For me personally, I’m not in a book as much for a romance, and I had been really excited about the possibility of a heroine without romance. The back cover copy didn’t indicate a romance, so I got my hopes up. Nothing against Lute and Rhen’s romance, But I just thought this might have been a neat story to overthrow that trope.
While the sexism of Rhen’s teammates angered me, and rightfully so, sometimes she was just as mean back. I completely understand—when you’ve been forced to live with that your entire life, you do feel some ugly feelings and sometimes they spill out in ways you don’t want. But honestly, if she had just listened to what Lute was trying to say early in the story and let him explain things, she could have saved herself some trouble.
I would have liked to see her progress to having more respect for her teammates, male or female, because she knew what it felt like to be disrespected. But, on the other hand, the book leaves Rhen’s actions mostly to the interpretation of the reader, which is really cool. So honestly, maybe when I go back for a reread, I'll see subtle hints of where she completes that arc.
The disabilities in question do serve to normalize it—but otherwise, they don’t really affect the story. (Ben’s Down Syndrome does more than Rhen’s.) Especially in Rhen’s case—a point is made of her having dyslexia in the first couple chapters, but it doesn’t change the way she sees things at all throughout the book (that I saw). Some people may feel this crosses the line from normalizing a disability into just brushing it off. I personally think it could have been used a pinch more and could have had some really interesting effects on the plot.
I loved that third quarter, but it was wildly different in pace than the rest of the story. The first two quarters largely center on Rhen’s efforts to cure the disease and navigate society, as well as her plan to enter the labyrinth. Then the third quarter is explosive intense action. And then we’re back to the fourth quarter which is a lot of working on cures, putting pieces together, and more society parties.
*cringe* That makes it sound like I hated this book. I didn’t. I thought it was well-written and sensitively thought out. I’d give it five stars just based on how much it made me think. Truly, your opinion on this book is going to depend a lot on your background and personal preferences. This is mine.
To Best the Boys has made me think through a lot of things in a new light. And for that, it’s a complete success. I highly encourage everyone to read it and draw your own conclusions. Even if your conclusions are different than the author, the thinking time alone is worth its weight in gold.
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Hi there! Rachel again. Check out this section for book reviews and cover reveals of some of my favorites!