I received a review copy of this book through Netgalley; all opinions are my own and honest.
Summary: The task is simple: Don a disguise. Survive the Labyrinth. Best the boys.
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. 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 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. Except not everyone’s ready for a girl who doesn’t know her place. And not everyone survives the deadly maze.
Welcome to the Labyrinth.
Genre(s): YA, (Low) Fantasy
Representation: dyslexic main character, neurodivergent minor character (no explicit diagnosis; based on autism/Down syndrome, according to author’s note), general socioeconomic diversity
Content warnings: classism, terminally ill mother, possessive / manipulative would-be suitor
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This book has basically everything I want in a good story: an independent-minded, ambitious, and witty protagonist (I have a weird personal bias against describing heroines as “strong” and “sassy,” but that’s what Rhen is!); an estranged childhood friend (who, as a bonus, got hot and has “anatomically perfect lips”); magic, including mythical creatures like sirens and ghouls, and a bit of mystery; intriguing riddles/puzzles that the reader can try to solve alongside the heroes; and even some creative cursing. A lot of reviewers seem to be saying that it’s not quite what they expected based on the synopsis, so I would definitely keep that in mind — while the Labyrinth/competition is the biggest plot point, it’s not the bulk of the story; and the setting is low fantasy, rather than dystopian.
The writing itself is beautiful; while I’m not generally a fan of big epiphanies about society/humanity/one’s self, or of cheesy romantic declarations, they’re used judiciously and balanced with enough action and character development to keep things interesting. I laughed at so many brilliantly executed lines, and the tension between a certain pairing just sizzles. Which is saying a lot, coming from me, the eternal cynic! (Also, although there is nominally a love triangle in that Rhen has a suitor who is not the same person as her crush, even as someone who generally has no patience for love triangles I found it more than tolerable because it aligned well with Rhen’s conflict between societal expectations and her personal goals, and romance really wasn’t the focus of the story at all.)
Rhen Tellur, the heroine, is far and away my favorite part of this story. She’s got a bit of a temper, but she’s also determined to pursue science and cure diseases. Her best friend/cousin, Seleni, belongs to an Upper family (Rhen’s mother was disowned for marrying Rhen’s father, a poor scientist), but Rhen lives near and is friends with many people from the poorer part of town: so she kind of has a foot in both worlds, giving her some advantages and limitations of each, and making her a really nuanced and sympathetic character. In a society that would like her to be quiet and defer to her future husband, she flouts convention to fight for herself and her friends.
At the same time, Seleni demonstrates a different kind of strength, finding a place for herself within society’s expectations without compromising her own agency or self-esteem. She wants to be a wife and mother, one who will speak her mind and stand up for her family against societal inequality, and she explicitly points out that this is also a valid dream worthy of respect. The rest of the cast is varied as far as family background and personal goals, and all are either really lovable or lots of fun to hate. Additionally, there are characters with learning disabilities, including Rhen herself being dyslexic! However, as far as I’m aware, there’s no explicit PoC or LGBT+ representation, which is disappointing since I think it would easily fit with all the social issues being addressed, and I would really have liked to see how they would fit into this world; they could have been incorporated as simply as a few mentions in passing or a very minor plot arc. I’m not trying to imply that all books need to represent everyone, but intersectionality is always important to keep in mind when discussing social issues as this book does.
I will add that I personally don’t think The Scorpio Races is a good comp title, despite what the blurb says — beyond a number of surface similarities (a girl enters the annual traditional competition traditionally meant for boys/men, a feature on special cakes to celebrate the occasion, and a love interest who adores the ocean and adores the protagonist because she is “untamable” like the ocean) they just feel like completely different stories to me, with very different moods; that said, this is of course an entirely subjective opinion. I’ve also seen comparisons to The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner and Caraval, among others — I think there are some similarities in setup (and, with Caraval in particular, the magic and puzzles and deception) but To Best the Boys is really its own story, with a unique combination of characters and themes.
A final note: It is a testament to this book’s merits that I loved it so much despite Adobe Digital Editions freezing up every few pages — of course in an ideal world it wouldn’t make a difference since technical difficulties have nothing to do with the actual story, but were this story less compelling I would certainly not have persevered to the end.