To Best the Boys is a book that had crossed my radar, but until I saw a review from Paperfury, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to slot it into my calendar. But then I saw that review and knew I had to read it and I am so glad I did!
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.
In the province of Caldon, where women are trained in wifely duties and men are encouraged into 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’s ready for a girl who doesn’t know her place. And not everyone survives the maze.
(Disclaimer: I received this book from Netgalley. This has not impacted my review which is unbiased and honest.)
To Best The Boys is a fabulous surprise. Not only is Rhen a STEM whiz, she’s living in a society which reminded me of the past – where men are given all the opportunities, and women aren’t allowed, and their roles are very much that of housewife and obedience. And Rhen is just the opposite. Fiercely passionate about science and motivated by the illness of her mother, Rhen is connected to the poorer class where she grew up, and the upper class where her mother’s family is from (but who disowned her mother).
Rhen & Friendship
Rhen is a fire cracker. She’s passionate, intelligent, and empathetic. She is also dyslexic. I loved the fact that while she was incredibly goal driven and determined, she never let the competitiveness change her – unlike some other characters. I also really liked the families in this book – Rhen’s family is complex as her mother is dying and so Rhen has to balance her fierce love for her family, with a society that has tried to forget her mother – her crime loving someone from the lower class. But it’s tremendously difficult for Rhen to feel so helpless to help her mother, and these are some of the most heart wrenching scenes.
(There’s also a side character who is disabled).
While she’s cutting up corpses, she’s accompanied by her cousin, Seleni who is the opposite of Rhen. Seleni cares about her prospects, marriage, and her dresses, but the reason their friendship functions so well is that she has the same passion, loyalty, and determination. And their friendship is one of my favorite parts of the book. In fact I’d say that without Seleni I would not have enjoyed the book so much.
Society & Feminism
In this incredibly repressive society for women, Rhen knows that her future will not make her happy. She’s a girl on a quest to be happy, to live true to herself in a society that tries to pit her against others, to disregard her own ambitions, and cave for love. But at the same time, Rhen acknowledges that Seleni isn’t any less feminist for her desires. Isn’t any less strong, or brave. Talk about supportive female friendships!
Not to mention the boys she’s besting are so awful. They’re cruel, privileged, and mean. So there’s no question of who you are rooting for. They have this disgusting attitude that all you have to do is try to succeed. It’s that defense I hear all the time about people who just aren’t trying enough to advance your class and change your future. Refusing to acknowledge their own privilege. Because not everyone has the same opportunities.
But at the heart of To Best the Boys is a story about feminism, friendship, and Rhen’s journey to be her own person. The story kept me guessing until the very end – you just wait…It was a welcome surprise that I highly recommend. There’s all these expectations about who she should be, how society expects her to act, and what her future is. And this book is a testament to her struggle to live against the grain, but not only that. But to also bring about change.