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. 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 received this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I always love stories with strong females who outshine their male counterparts, ever since I was a kid and saw Mulan in theater (three times). Then add in some fantasy and science and I knew I had to read this. I also was drawn to the unique titles of the book and, of course, that gorgeous cover!
Rhen is an extraordinary narrator and protagonist. And I don’t just mean because of the things she does in the story. She has a strong and memorable personality that carries you through the book. Her voice really engages the reader with the plot and made me really relate to her, even though we really share no interests or personality traits. The other characters in the book, her cousin, her love interest, her friends, are all well rounded as well. Each character has flaws, but also redeemable qualities, including the antagonist. At times the cast felt a bit too big for a book of this size, but everyone plays a necessary role in the plot, so it made sense.
The town of Pinsbury Port, where the entirety of this story takes place, plays on a lot of tropes already established in the Fantasy genre, but adds in new elements that keep the setting fresh and interesting. While mythical creatures are part of the plot, they’re also an active part of the setting, adding to the sights, sounds and (unfortunately) smells of Rhen’s hometown. It was great to see an element of the plot so fully incorporated in the world from the first few pages and onward. I also really enjoyed how, while there is magic in this world, science and medicine are also prominent and just as important to the story as magic. The mixture of these different elements in what could have been a very mundane and run-of-the-mill fantasy setting made this world exciting and memorable.
I was immediately pulled into the plot of this book. From the first scene, where Rhen is sneaking into the morgue to take blood samples from dead bodies, I felt like I could not put this book down. It’s fast paced and not very long. If you an avid reader, you can probably get through this in a weekend. However, I did struggle with the pacing of the book. It is definitely quick, but there were some areas I really wanted things slowed down a bit. For example, the labyrinth trial, which the entire book leads up to, didn’t really start until halfway through the book, and was over around 80% of the way through it. More time is spent leading up to the labyrinth than you actually spend in it. Similarly, the ending was drawn out a bit too long for my tastes. I would have loved to see some of the twists and reveals that were in the last 20% of the book be more spread out through the story.
To Best the Boys is Mary Weber’s latest book and is a real treat for feminist fantasy lovers. The book celebrates women on all types in addition to just being a great and fun story. The settings and characters of the book will captivate you and stay with you long after you put the book back on your shelf. The plot is fast-paced and overall, this is a quick and enjoy read for fans of the genre.