Maybe it was just me, but I went To Best the Boys by Mary Weber expecting one thing and getting something completely different. So much in fact that I found myself rewriting this review multiple times (hence it being a day late). I believe it might also be my longest review to date!
From the publisher:
The task is simple:
Don a disguise.
Survive the labyrinth.
Best the boys.
It was enough to grab my attention and request an ARC of the book that I was thrilled to have approved by NetGalley, Edelweiss and Thomas Nelson Recorded Books When I read it?
Don’t get me wrong. I mean this in all due compliment to Weber. I’m just not sure why the book isn’t published on more merit than it is given. It is so much more than just a girl who attempts “to best the boys” in a yearly labyrinth that is, and always has been a boys-only club where the winner’s prize is a scholarship to a prestigious university.
“I assume he’s referring to the competition tomorrow at Holm Castle… that I wish I could, too, for as long as I can remember. But society’s more likely to embrace cross-stich as a sort than toss out its long-standing history of gender roles. No matter that Mum and I can cut up a corpse or do an equation the same or better than half the blokes my age.”
Beyond the obvious storyline of a girl living in a patriarchal society, Rhen is a sharp-tongued girl who doesn’t feel at home in either the upper or lower class. Her mother was born in upper class of society but married a lower-class, but brilliant scientist and upon doing so was shunned from that world.
However, her daughter, Rhen is still invited to all high-society events and expected to marry back into that world. This something Rhen is not so comfortable doing. Having become a great scientist herself, under the tutelage of her father, she is much more comfortable among the common place of society than the upper class.
At a young age, her parents started homeschooling Rhen due to a difficulty in reading and excellence in science, and work with cadavers. Yet, because of her the upper-calls welcoming nature of Rhen, the commoners don’t see her in this manner. This leaves Rhen feeling like she doesn’t quite fit in anywhere or with anyone. When asked where she is from she once quips,
“Oh, from all over and nowhere and everywhere at once.”
Don’t let this comment fool you. Rhen is no shrinking violet. She is strong, sharp tongued and able to hold her best with anyone from each part of society, whether they want to accept her or not.
During this same function, and an event portside, Rhen starts coming across clues that quickly lead her to the realization that there are other nefarious acts at work. While she once hoped that if the those that had power knew of what was happening in the lower class- the disease, the poverty, the struggles that they might do something about it? Well that naivety quickly slips away to the realization that not only do they not care to do anything about it but may have a foot in causing it.
Interwoven well by Weber, social-warfare begins to come into play first through Rhen’s eyes. While at a high-society gathering, Germaine, a boy of high-standing puts it very bluntly to Rhen why those that are from the lower ranks of society should never be permitted to participate.
“Why waste an education on someone with less ability? Less aptitude- less motivation? There’s a reason why those in the Lower district live there, <Rhen>.”
One of the two greatest hardships of the lower class is when an announcement was made that severe limitations would be made on the port utilized as one of the main sources of income by those in the lower class. The thing I expected while reading To Best the Boys that Billy Joel would start crashing into my head at about 40% through the book but there it was. I couldn’t help but think of the song Downeaster Alexa.
Especially the following lines:
I got bills to pay and children who need clothes
I know there’s fish out there but where God only knows
They say these waters aren’t what they used to be
But I got people back on land who count on me
I was a bay man like my father was before
Can’t make a living as a bay man anymore
There ain’t much future for a man who works the sea
But there ain’t no island left for islanders like me
The second and even greater threat is a spreading plague that is spreading and killing lower class citizens quicker by the day. Rhen’s own mother is now fighting it. Rhen’s father and she are sure they are getting closer to a cure but without research funding, it is slow going. Now that Rhen is learning the truth behind those with the most power in society, she sees that hope dimming by the second.
Without giving anymore away, I know, I’m sorry but I always try to keep my reviews as spoiler free as possible, I will say that this spurs her, and her ever adoring cousin Seleni into action, and into the part of the book we expected to take place. What I will say is that even within the part of the book I did expect from its description is that there is a sucker punch that I never saw coming. I was shocked and incredibly thrown off guard by plot twist Weber pulls off. It is both completely believable, completely works and completely unpredictable.
All the characters… ok, all the good characters are a delight. Throughout the book you build a different bond for each character. Each having a unique voice and personality that remains consistent throughout the book. Weber doesn’t waiver in keeping each character unique and this makes bonding with them that much deeper for the reader. By the time you get to the labyrinth? You are on the brink of suspense rooting and worrying for different characters.
I knocked off a 1/2 a star for one reason. For me? I adored the book. Even in not expecting all that it entailed. I think Weber did a brilliant job bringing it all together. It was a truly in-depth, multi-layered story that never lost its way. It wasn’t confusing nor was it too much.
However, that is me. For some, I could see where they might think it is all a bit too much. I can’t stress the following point enough. I don’t think this should ever deter anyone from reading To Best The Boys. It is a brilliant, fun read that addresses many current social issues without pandering, formulaic or at all obvious.