Doin’ it for the Girls: To Best the Boys by Mary Weber (ARC)

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Thomas Nelson through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Who, What, Where?

To Best the Boys is set in the province of Caldon in which every year an epic competition hosted by the mysterious Mr Holm is held for eligible aged boys to compete for the chance to win a scholarship to the prestigious Stemwick University. Only one can win, and the competition is not for the faint of heart as contestants have died in previous years.

Our lead is Rhen Teller, a sixteen-year-old girl with a talent for biological science. Alongside her father, Rhen has desperately been trying to devise a cure for the deadly disease spreading through the lower classes and slowly killing her mother. Rhen concludes that in order to gain access to the resources and technology she needs to do her research, her best option is to attend university by winning the scholarship. The only problem? It’s an all-male institution. And so, along with her cousin Seleni, Rhen devises a plan to disguise herself as a boy to not only take home the prize but show the boys what an intelligent young woman can do.

Why You Should Read this Book:

A Solid Lead

From as early as the dedication, To Best the Boys sets itself up to be a female empowering story and if there’s one thing you need for a book like this, it’s a strong central character. Rhen was one of my favourite components of the book. She’s certainly strong, but also smart, hardworking, quick thinking, confident in her abilities (despite others’ attempts to discount her), and a little bit sassy.

“Miss Lake, I’d heard your cousin would be a fun one, but I’d no idea how pleasurable. You must bring her around, more often. I think I’d enjoy getting to know more of her…spirit.”

…I lower my voice and flick my gaze down his body. “Mr Germaine, I assure you – were you given the opportunity to know more of my spirit, I believe I’d find the whole experience wholly unsatisfying.”

Whilst possessing these bolder traits, Rhen does have a gentler side, too. She’s kind, empathetic, and extremely passionate about using her skills to try and help others in her community. The fact that she isn’t squeamish and starts the novel off at the morgue rooting around a dead body additionally makes for a great first impression.

Feminist Themes

I can never resist a good YA with feminist undertones and To Best the Boys does well on this front. The world itself is designed around forcing women into very traditional mother/wife roles with very little activities beyond things such as sewing and baking. By having intelligent female leads actively pursuing what they want in such a setting, the theme of female empowerment shines through very clearly and as a young woman, it’s hard not to feel great reading it.

“You win this thing, Rhen Teller. Enough to make Vincent and Germaine regret they weren’t born women”.

I really enjoyed the fact that despite the more historical kind of setting, Weber still manages to make quite a few comments on equality issues that apply even in today’s society, and in doing so she really emphasises just how stupid they are. For example, girls as distractions for boys in educational settings. The other thing that I massively appreciated was Weber’s attitude towards equality and feminism. It’s about women having the freedom and opportunities to choose what to do with their future, even if, like Seleni, their choice is to be a wife and mother. You do you, Seleni!

Cute Romance

“If I go, you go with me.”

“I’ve already won,” he whispers.

Can I once again just say, thank god for authors who know how to write romances that don’t take over the rest of the story. The romance in this book is a nice, little subplot. It pops up now and again and the exchanges between fisherman, Lute, and Rhen are pretty sweet, even if Rhen spends a lot of time commenting on Lute’s luscious lips. Girl, we’ve all been there. However, the best part of this relationship, very much fitting with the overall gist of the book, is that Lute is completely supportive of Rhen being her intelligent, beat all the rest, best self and has absolutely no issues being with a woman who is smarter and more successful than he is. Basically, I am totally here for it.

Diversity

I have to give points to Weber for trying to include some aspects of diversity in terms of learning disabilities into the novel. They’re not extremely prominent but they’re there. Rhen, herself, is dyslexic and it was great to see a heroine showcase the fact that having a learning difficulty does not make you stupid or mean it’s impossible for you to excel academically and in life. It may require additional time and effort, but you can get there.

Why You Might Want to Skip It:

Unmemorable & Lacking World Building

One of the things that I often find gets choppy in fantasy standalones is the world building and, unfortunately, it’s also the case with this book. When the novel starts out, the setting is reminiscent of a seaside town in historical England. We’re given a couple of geographical details and some facts about gender roles, the class divide and the fact that fishing is a big industry, but otherwise, it all feels a little bland and also entirely non-magical. That is, until suddenly *poof*, we find out the world has magical creatures – ghouls, sirens, basilisks, oh my. I love magical creatures, don’t get me wrong, but the problem I had with their use here is that they don’t feel properly integrated into the rest of the world. Aside from some elements of the competition, for the most part, they seem like the only magical element in it. As a result, I just ended up largely disinterested in the setting and, at times, a little mystified.

Rushed Competition

I feel as though my expectations may partially be to blame for this one, but it is what it is. When I went into this, I expected that, after some time setting the scene and introducing the characters, the majority of the story would take place in the labyrinth. To my surprise, the book builds up to it only for the actual competition to consist of probably only a bit over a third of the story. Although the novel is around 350 pages long, as I was reading through, I couldn’t help feeling like the tasks were rushed and some lacking in excitement. While I’m aware this isn’t The Hunger Games, I expected slightly more.

WTF Ending

The final challenge is certainly not lacking in drama (even though that drama is not of Mr Holm’s making). Yet, even after having flicked back and re-read through this scene, colour me confused. Everything happens very quickly and although I’m aware of the outcome, how in the world did we end up there and why was it allowed? What was even the point of the entire last challenge if someone could “win” this way. Trying to avoid spoilers here is extremely difficult but I feel as though the way the competition ends isn’t consistent with the idea of besting the boys. While I was on board with the result and everything that followed was great, it always felt somehow…tainted by how it was gained.

To Best the Boys is a reasonably entertaining read with some strong female empowerment themes and a likeable lead. However, due to its plot flaws and lack of a distinctive world, unfortunately, for me, it’s unlikely to be highly memorable or encourage a re-read.

3 Stars

Survival, Sisterhood, and Female Empowerment: Grace & Fury by Tracy Banghart

4.5 stars

Grace & Fury

I received this ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I am woman, hear me roar.

If there’s one thing I never grow tired of reading about, it’s women supporting one another and finding their inner strength, even when all the odds are stacked against them.  As Banghart’s author’s note says, this is:

For every woman who has been told to sit down and be quiet…and who has stood up anyway.

Who, What, Where?

Grace & Fury is set in the kingdom of Viridia – think Gilead from Handmaid’s Tale without the fertility issues and religious nut jobs.

Women were forbidden to read. Women were forbidden to choose their husbands, their jobs, their futures. Forbidden to dive for pearls or sell goods at market to help their families. Forbidden to cut their hair unless a man told them to. Forbidden to think for themselves. Forbidden to choose.

At the country’s head is The Superior. Every three years he selects three women to join his household as Graces (basically, glorified concubines). It’s the highest honour to be selected and although it’s a life of subjugation, it’s also one of luxury.

The novel alternates third person POV between two protagonists: Serina & Nomi. Serina, beautiful and soft-spoken, has spent her life training to be a Grace, while her sister, Nomi, smart and strong-willed, desires more from life than simply being Serina’s handmaiden. When it’s announced that the Superior’s heir, Malachi, is to make his first ever Grace selections, the girls travel to the palace. However, plans are turned on their head when instead of Serina, the Heir selects Nomi.

Things go from bad to worse when Serina is caught in a compromising position and sent to Mount Ruin, an island prison designed to house the worst of Virdia’s female offenders. Here, women are pitted against each other in violent matches to the death for sport and rations, and every day is a struggle to survive.

In the palace, Nomi is forced to adjust to her new life as a Grace, knowing that one wrong step could prove fatal. She soon comes to realise that her position may, in fact, present the perfect opportunity to create permanent change in Virdia, and the Superior’s second son, Asa, could prove her ticket to freedom.

Why you Might want to Skip it (But Please don’t!)

Normally I start off with the positives, but let’s change things up, shall we?

Pacing

While Serina’s story jumps into gear quickly and remains engaging right to the end, Nomi’s takes until at least halfway to find it’s purpose. Following Serina’s departure, Nomi spends a frustrating period of time trying to find out what happened to her. It makes sense for the character but it offers zero interest to the reader. The search eventually leads her to Asa and kicks off her main storyline but I would love to have seen more of an investigative and active element on Nomi’s part and earlier on, too.

Will the real Nomi please stand up?

I have to say, I feel a bit disappointed in Nomi. At the beginning of the story, she’s rebellious, questioning, and sassy. During her first conversation with Malachi, I was like, YES, you go girl. And then poof!  Where did you go spunky Nomi? WHERE? I get that you’re sad Serina’s gone and terrified The Superior is going to murder you but what happened to your spirit? The promised Nomi does emerge later on but I wish she’d been a stronger character throughout.

Why You Should Read this Book

Balance

One of the things I loved about Grace & Fury was the contrast and balance between Serina and Nomi’s stories. Setting wise, with Serina, Banghart gives us a very harsh environment in which women have to be both physically and mentally tough to make it through. Then we have Nomi, living in the most glamorous place in the country, but which, to her, feels just as much like a cage.

Serina’s path is very much action-oriented and involves a lot of big, bold moves to get her to where she needs to be at the end. Comparatively, Nomi’s relies on secrecy, a bit of cloak and dagger, and thinking her way around problems.

The ending of these storylines is also in stark opposition – one a triumph, the other a complete disaster. These differences are great in that they give the novel fantastic variety in terms of plot and tone which keeps the book engaging and in motion.

Likeable MCs & Bonds of Sisterhood

Grace & Fury’s success stems largely from its well written and distinct leads. Both Nomi and Serina are very likeable and you have no difficulty rooting for them. Serina, in particular, starts the novel off quite soft and submissive, but over time, we watch her transform into a strong, brave, and resourceful, young woman who’d rather die than compromise her own humanity.

Both girls are also very different from one another. The wonderful thing is that despite this, and a situation that should make them resent one another (as a sister, trust me, I know), they remain loyal. Each desperately wants to break free of their situation, not just for themselves, but because they believe they need to rescue the other. It’s a quality that only makes you love them more.

The absence of her sister was a hole in her chest, growing larger and larger the longer they spent apart. She had to save Serina. If she didn’t, there’d be nothing of her left.

Twist

If you’ve read Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, you’ll be able to predict this twist from a mile away. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, no way! But don’t get me wrong, even though I saw it coming, I loved the direction. Once I realized this was where the story headed, I was really excited, even impatient, to see it play out and it completely changed how I viewed interactions between certain characters. It ended up being interesting and dramatic, provided more character depth, gave Nomi a chance to shine, and left us in an exciting place for the sequel.

Female Empowerment

“We are not flowers,” she said firmly. “Like you said, Oracle, we are concrete and barbed wire. We are iron.”

This is a book that showcases the power of women in so many ways. Seriously, Grace & Fury will make you want to take on the world and more importantly, believe you can win. This is a novel about women surviving and even triumphing under adversity. It’s about refusing to just accept your situation. It’s about striving for more and overcoming fear. And most of all, it’s about women supporting other women.

My Mother raised me never to trust other women because we would always be in competition. But it’s not true. Look at how we take care of each other here…We heal each other…We share food…We die for each other…We need to stop killing each other and fight them.

 

 “In all the stories, women give up everything,” Maris said, her voice tight. “We are always supposed to give. We are never supposed to fight. Why do you think that is?”…

“Because they’re afraid of what will happen if we do.”

I wish I could say more but that would be spoiling it. What I will say is, read this book. You won’t regret it.

4.5 Stars

Love Ashley