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.
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!
“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.
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.
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.
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.