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. 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. But not everyone survives the deadly maze.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a fantasy YA, especially a standalone fantasy YA, so while I did end up enjoying To Best the Boys, it did take me a little while to get into the story. I think it was just all the standard elements of the genre; being dropped into a world with the world-building happens as it goes, the casual mention of various creatures and the social/political landscape, that I hadn’t really had in a while after reading more contemporary or historical fiction set in our world.
Once Rhen and Seleni join the competition and enter the labyrinth, the story just speeds by. The sort of trials in the maze they have to go through, and how they have to work with some boys their friends with and like, and some that they really don’t is interesting, especially as all the while they’re trying to keep their identities secret.
The society of Caldon is made up of the Uppers and the Lowers – the upper and working class basically. Rhen was born a Lower after her mother was disowned for marrying her scientist father, though she has connections to the Uppers as Seleni and her Aunt and Uncle are Uppers and continue to invite Rhen to their extravagant parties in the hope to pair her off with a rich young man. It’s clear that Rhen feels more comfortable with her Lower friends in the port or doing scientific experiments with her dad than at these parties.
Caldon is also a patriarchal society and the way Rhen struggles to make her voice heard, where a lot of older men are in power and don’t listen to anyone who is not like them, is unfortunately similar to our own world. Rhen’s passion is for science and learning and wants to make something of herself and while that’s the main driving force of the story, To Best the Boys takes a moment to acknowledge that Seleni’s dreams of finding love and being a wife and mother are just as valid. It’s having the ability to make that choice is what is important to Rhen. Seleni and Rhen’s friendship was one of my favourite things about To Best the Boys. They are so close and Seleni is almost the best of both worlds as she loves the balls and dresses and dancing with boys, but she also enjoys being involved with Rhen’s experiments and adventures. Seleni can almost fit in anywhere whereas Rhen can’t be something she’s not.
As well as the feminist angle, To Best the Boys has some disability representation. Though they aren’t given the names we use, Rhen is dyslexic and there’s another character, Rhen’s love interests younger brother, who has autistic traits.
As it’s a standalone, To Best the Boys did feel a little rushed at times, but equally the story is so tight and focused in on the event to win the scholarship that a lot of character backstories or more world-building isn’t really needed. 3/5.