“I’m just tired of feeling like the way things are is the only way they can ever be” (136).
Rhen Tellur lives in a world of limitations. She is bound by her gender and by her class in a society that—despite its fantasy roots—feels all too real. Mary Weber’s standalone young adult novel To Best the Boys is a delight.
The premise centers on an annual competition: the boys of Pinsbury Point enter a labyrinth and vie to be the first to exit. The winner receives a full scholarship to Stemwick Men’s University. This opportunity is open to both the Uppers and the Lowers, the two classes in the kingdom of Caldon, and so it’s an equal chance for boys—but only for boys—to grab on to a potentially life-changing education.
At the opening of the novel, Rhen, the daughter of an Upper society mother and a Lower father, is fighting with her Da to find a cure for a crippling illness that is afflicting residents, including her mother, of Lower villages. She yearns to be seen by those in power, the ones who could make a difference for those who are suffering. She dreams of breaking out of the cage of her gender, which seems to have sentenced her to—at best—a life as a politician’s wife without choices who must hide her intelligence and scientific aptitude. She pines for Lute, a fisherman who wants only to care for his family and to make a simple living.
With her cousin Seleni, a member of Upper society, Rhen does her best to work toward each of these goals while respecting the bounds of her world. There is, however, a catalyst that causes her to make a leap, disguise herself as a boy, and enter the Labyrinth. To Best the Boys reminded me, at different times, of The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner, but it establishes a new angle on that YA trend.
Weber’s world building here is just brilliant, juxtaposing the science that consumes Rhen with a fantasy world containing sirens, ghouls, and basilisks. I so appreciated Rhen’s coming of age as she struggles to define who she is in a society that gives women few choices. Weber balances Rhen’s personality with her cousin Seleni’s desires, and we see Seleni focusing on a quite different life for herself. The right to carve one’s path, regardless of what that path is, is a major theme in the novel.
The writing is strong, and I found myself marking quotations and beautiful phrasing throughout the book. The book’s strength doesn’t lie in surprises—I found this type of plot, including the quest within the labyrinth, Rhen’s self discovery, and the romantic relationships, to be fairly predictable. Instead, the quality of the details of world and of the character distinguish this book from others like it.
A strong standalone novel that is both rich and complete, Mary Weber’s To Best the Boys will satisfy readers seeking fantasy, action, and some excellent feminism. Great YA read!