Hello Humans! Welcome to my review of YA fantasy novel To Best The Boys. This book caught me with its cover and hooked me with its concept – am I ever not going to want to read a book that involves women tearing down peoples expectations? I read this over a few days and a long train journey and it’s certainly a book that will appeal to some people, with a number of popular YA elements, I’m delighted to share my thoughts with you today.
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 am pretty much guaranteed to like a character with a bit of a morbid scientific fascination. While I didn’t go down the scientific route myself (I decided when I was picking my A levels that I was done with that and I wanted to write essays instead) I think it’s so important to be encouraging women in science and one way we can do that is by writing stories about it. My favourite parts of this book were the moments where Rhen was ‘doing science’ whether that was running experiments with her father or when you could ‘see’ the cogs turning as she solved puzzles and discerned plot while in the maze.
I also liked that this book wasn’t Rhen against the world, so many books like this would choose to make her the lone girl among a society of boys (I don’t think we can deny that I’m calling out another maze based franchise here…). That Weber opted to write in Seleni, Rhen’s cousin, to go through the book with her was a wonderful choice – it would have been a very different (and much worse) book without her.
Where this book falls short is in the world building. The concept of this competition for a scholarship is strong, and it feels like the author knows what has led up to this, there are details and ideas in there that hint at a wider understanding, but that isn’t really shared with the audience. If I was asked to describe the setting in which this book takes place, from geography to technology to clothing – I think I would be pretty stumped. It’s also a fairly non-grounded magic system, my preference is for some harder rules in place if you’re going to have even a semblance of magic. This actually reminded me a little of the problems I had with Caraval, where the intention is clearly to disorientate an audience and make them unsure as to what is real – but you never really get a resolution so it’s just confusing.
With tighter worldbuilding, I think I could have loved this book. I enjoy books that involve solving puzzles and that involve women fighting against the system. Unfortunately, I have to say there are much stronger contenders on the market at the moment and this book doesn’t have enough depth of worldbuilding for me to be able to wholeheartedly recommend it.
If you have a copy of this book in your local library and you fancy reading something with a bit of girl power and science then it may be worth a go. I’m not sure I’d be rushing out to buy the hardback at this point in time. Perhaps with a re-read, it might reveal some more detail?
My rating: 3/5 stars
I received a free digital advanced review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
To Best The Boys is available on March 18th!
What say you? Will you be reading this? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!