Blurb from Goodreads:
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.
This book’s premise is definitely interesting—girls donning a disguise to enter a competition that, for decades, had only just been for boys. With hidden traps, and angry beasts, a dose of magic to mess with things a bit, and nefarious competitors—this is a dangerous competition. Or so I thought. While Mary Weber managed to serve a plate filled with all the promised ingredients—magic, menace, adventure—it sadly wasn’t seasoned well.
To Best the Boys has some inspiring lessons for young girls, reminding them to take charge and not let anyone run their lives for them. That the person who will help you reach your goals and turn your dreams into reality, is you. But I feel like there has been too much focus on this, and it noticeably slowed the pacing of the story, while also making some important aspects—like the world-building and characterization—suffer.
The world-building felt unfinished. It has a lot of corners left unexplored. It’s like I was given just a fragment of something that is really awesome. There were no background stories to explain why ghouls, and sea sirens, and other deadly beasts lurk in the night. Just as there were no backstories to make us understand why the boys in this book are absolute jerks. It’s sad—and kind of annoying—to see these characters acting so mean just for the sake of having a villain.
“You take this world and make it what it should be. And don’t let the beliefs of a backward system define you.”
Rhen is a typical protagonist. There’s nothing very unique about her that makes her rise above all the other protagonists in this genre. But her perseverance and her dedication to her work is something to be admired. I love how she values her family above anything and how she genuinely cares about her friends, which makes her a good role model for young readers.
I never really cared about the romance in this book. There just wasn’t enough chemistry between Lute and Rhen to make me root for them. Rhen is generic. Lute is flat and boring. The love triangle didn’t really spark true tension between the characters involved. It was very one sided, and so, it was boring too.
What I’m most excited about this book is the labyrinth and the deadly competition that will be held in it. But it took a long time before the story gets there. And when it finally did, it was underwhelming. Everything ended so soon. I did not get enough thrill from the competition. And I didn’t see the cunning characters I was hoping for.
The revelations—the cause of the decease, the solution for the fishing restrictions, how the bad guys were dealt, how Holme’s identity was revealed, and even how Rhen’s family problems were solved—lacks a much needed impact. Such unsatisfying reveals for things that started out so intriguing. It’s like being promised some butter, but we’re given margarine instead.
Overall, To Best the Boys isn’t entirely a bad book. Rhen and her gang did have some amazing adventures together. I think younger audience would enjoy this more than I did.