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.
To Best the Boys was a light and fun read, absolutely perfect if you have a few hours to yourself and want to immerse yourself in a different world for a bit. I’ll admit I really don’t like the title at all and likely would have put me off buying it but as I received this in a book box I was a captive audience. The premise was quirky, anything with a misfit group trying to solve something, usually ticks my boxes and I like how Rhen was very far from from the usual female protagonists in YA. She loves to get her hands dirty and see how things work, a brilliant scientific mind in a time where women were just meant to smile and be pretty. The feminist theme in the story is strong, but Rhen manages to get her point across with good humour. Lines like “or maybe they could just look at women as it we’re regular people” are simple yet effective. Much of the writing feels that way, so the story flows easily over the pages.
I adored her relationship with her dad (that’s another thing – the author is from the US but many references are in UK English :D) their working tirelessly together was just beautiful and so full of understanding. “You follow your dreams, not your guilt” was perhaps my favourite line in the book and it was spoken between them – the more I think about that line the more relevant I think it feels to how many of us perceive potentially leaving loved ones behind, it really struck a chord with me.
But, for those expecting this to be like the maze runner you’ll be disappointed, it took 2/3 of the book to get to the labyrinth itself and whilst the first part does an amazing job at setting Rhen up as the contender who could achieve great things, it could have been condensed. I didn’t feel like the the part of the over fishing of the port added anything at all, and whilst it did highlight an important environmental concern, it bore little relevance to the story other than serving as a last minute wheel to get another character in the maze. The maze section though was great, packed with mind bending trials, the right balance of terror and excitement as well as a generous dose of somewhat unhealthy competition. I just wished it lasted longer! This writing was great and if only more pages had been dedicated to it, To Best the Boys would have been a much higher rating from me.