To Best the Boys
By Mary Weber
4.5/ 5 stars
“What if my dreams aren’t just one thing, but instead they are everything?”
Every year on the Autumn Equinox, the largest estate, Mr. Holm’s estate at the very top of the hill, shadowed with mystery, holds a competition for the eligible men in the town for a chance to win a scholarship to the top university. This competition, however, is a labyrinth that tests the boys intelligence on every level; their smarts, their nerves, and their character. Rhen Teller dreams of being a scientist and her and her father spend all of their time searching for a cure to the mysterious illness that seeks to claim her mother’s life. Her only hope seems to be found in the chance for better education and equipment found at the university, but the problem is…they would never let in a girl. Rhen takes a chance on herself and disguises herself as a boy to enter the labyrinth competition, in the hope that if she wins they will have to let her take the entrance exam. But Rhen is up against not only the other competitors but the maze itself, infused with magic and mystery that throws her journey into the toughest puzzle she has ever faced.
To Best the Boys is filled with introspective thought and a jam-packed journey of puzzles and wit that will have you on the edge of your seat the whole time. Every step of the labyrinth felt like an escape-room that I, personally, as the reader needed to figure out alongside the characters. This rich and vibrant world filled with characters and social commentary that eerily parallels our own reaches out to question what it means to be a woman and what it means to be brave.
I have to first address the writing because it was the very first thing I noticed about the book and what immediately set my heart fluttering in excitement. Weber writes with a natural wit and charismatic flow that kept me amused and ready to encounter new things on every page. there is nothing so refreshing as a writer whose work inspires me to write and I was immediately hooked by the story through her writing.
The characters were also a strong and compelling element to the story. I felt like each one had a distinct personality, and though many novels can be crushed by the weight of too many complex characters, I never felt like I was lost in who these characters were. Rhen was a wonderful protagonist whom I saw much of myself in, unfortunately in those moments where she was faced with dismissal from men and the tendency to be seen as a thing to tame for being outspoken, and fortunately in those moments she followed her own path. I loved all her little quirks and her bravery to face a world that insisted she be complacent in her own life. On the other side of this, I LOVED Seleni. I am always fearful when a feminist stance is taken and we are presented with a traditionally feminine figure because they are often put down in the face of lifting up a character like Rhen who is less traditionally feminine. BUT Weber does a splendid job at addressing that women can be strong in whatever they do and that it is the choice that matters. I was overjoyed that both of these characters were strong and presented as such despite being so different.
(Just a side note on how much I love Lute and if anyone knows of a similar human being in real life they can send him my way immediately)
The story was captivating and entertaining from start to finish, filled with excitement and things to think about. There were some parts that enraged me because they paralleled my own experience as a women, dismissed and looked down upon and in this, Weber did an incredible job at navigating an important social concept in an entertaining way. This is feminism filled with dead bodies, ghouls, puzzles and a little dash of romance just for fun. One of the best books I’ve read in ages.