I’ve been a fan of Mary Weber’s books since I read Storm Siren in 2014. Her books always have these underlying themes of hope and truth woven into the narrative, but To Best the Boys goes far beyond anything she’s written before. I can honestly say, without any doubts, that it is her best book yet.
Rhen Tellur’s biggest aspiration is to become the first female scientist and discover a cure for the disease that is crippling her port side town. So when the annual, all-male scholarship contest comes around, Rhen does the unthinkable: disguises herself as a boy and enters the competition. But Mr. Holm’s maze is more than just a game and not everybody survives. With every twist and turn, Rhen is tested beyond anything she’s experienced before, but she’s determined to prove she can best the boys.
It’s not hard to review books I dislike. The hardest reviews are the ones for books I fell irrevocably in love with. The books that spoke to the deepest part of my heart and stuck with me long after I read the the last page. To Best the Boys is one of those books.
There are so many aspects of this book I loved that it’s hard to begin. The enthralling world-building, the brilliant characters, the scream-worthy plot twists, the sweet romance—this books has it all and then some.
Rhen is quite the firecracker. She won’t give up, no matter what. She cuts her hair to pretend to be a boy because she knows she can win and it doesn’t matter what she looks like to do it. She would rather examine dead bodies and do science experiments than dress up or dance or knit. She’s very sassy and has difficulty reading. Basically, Rhen is an amazing and much-needed female protagonist. She also has positive relationships with both her parents, which I never see enough of in YA books. Gosh, just give me all the amazing parents and children relationships, please.
There’s also her friendship with Seleni. I loved reading about their friendship. Despite their differences, they are supportive and understanding of each other. They may not have the same ideas about life and their paths may differ, but they respect each other’s decisions, and I just love this portrayal so much. Seleni hops right into the Labyrinth with Rhen, no hesitation or doubt, because she knows she can help Rhen reach her goal. We need more books with such positive, uplifting female friendships.
And then there are the boys. The squishy, sweet, cinnamon roll boys. Gosh, we need more boys like this in YA fantasy books. Lute is such a swoon-worthy love interest. From page one, I knew I was going to love him and he only gets better from there. I have so much to say about Lute, but I fear it’ll give away spoilers. Just know there are real boys out there who are as sweet and wonderful as Lute. I know because I’m married to one. And Beryll, Seleni’s beau, is just as noteworthy because despite his squeamish nature and his adorably awkwardness, his story arc is so great. I just want to cry and pull him into a big hug for being such a wonderful example of a male character who can be gentle and sweet yet still manly and brave.
The setting is basically its own character as well. From the descriptions of the town to the random snapshots of the rest of the kingdom to the depths of Labyrinth, this book is so atmospheric. It has this turn-of-the-century feel but also includes these intriguing fantasy elements as well. I ate up the beautiful descriptions and the mythology dropped into the story. Sometimes a fantasy book doesn’t need to explain every single detail of the world-building to feel lived in. Sometimes I just need to understand that a world has sirens and basilisks and ghouls and high society and poor fishermen and an annual festival that brings everybody together and move along to the next point because I’m already in love.
The story itself is compelling. I could not put this book down once I started. I read more than half in about one sitting, and I kept flipping pages because so much was happening and it was exciting and enticing and twisting me around at every turn. There is so much packed into this story—from the girls who are in some ways better than the boys and in other ways equal to the boys because equality is just as important to plot twists that keep the story going and give such a satisfactory ending to such a wild adventure to everything I’ve already mentioned. This is a story where the journey is definitely more important than the end destination.
This is the book I wish I could give my fourteen year-old self because the truths woven through the narrative of Rhen’s journey are so powerful and uplifting that the emotional side of me wants to sob for hours on end. Because I am no longer a teenager, I hope Mary’s words reach out to the girls who are like me, who are searching for the courage to be themselves no matter what others say about them, to step toward their dreams and aspirations without hesitation or doubt. This book is for them, and I am so, so grateful to Mary for writing it. I’m never going to stop recommending this book.
For fans of Caraval, The Scorpio Races, and The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, To Best the Boys is an incredible story about courage, perseverance, and finding yourself against all odds. I just want to reread it again already.