The world of Young Adult Fantasy is an ever-changing and vast landscape with endless variations and possibilities. It can be difficult within such an enormous and popular genre to find a niche and write it well enough to stand out. The idea of setting a competition in a labyrinth is something that has been done multiple times, but so far To Best the Boys by Mary Weber is my favorite. She masterfully weaves together existing fantasy ideas with twists and concoctions of her own, and has created a world that is familiar enough to make it seem possible, but fantastical enough to keep you guessing and wanting more.
“The task is simple:
Don a disguise.
Survive the labyrinth.
Best the boys.”
Rhen Tellur lives in Pinsbury Port in the Province of Caldon, in a society where men pursue politics and education, and women know better than to pursue anything more than the men. For the past 54 years, every household in Pinsbury Port has received the same letter, with identical details inviting the boys to compete in a mysterious trial to earn a scholarship to the all-male Stemwick University. To the ‘Uppers’ it is a chance at status and esteem, and to the ‘Lowers’ it could mean the difference between reaching an education at all and spending the rest of their lives laboring at sea. For Rhen, it could mean an opportunity to save her mother’s life from the mysterious disease that is rampaging the city-at least the lower class port-side of the city.
There were many things I enjoyed about this book, and possibly my favorite was the unapologetic feminism and diverse representation included by the author. Weber begins the book with a dedication to ‘the girl who’s been told to quiet down, calm down, sit down, or just leave it to the men- this is for you.’ She continues ‘And to those you told you such things? Watch. Us. Rise.’ She carries this tone through the entire novel, with a strong female heroine who is complex and interesting, and romance that is so much more that a trite love triangle. She includes characters that are not defined by their disabilities and differences, and has written relationships that are genuine and fulfilled. It is rare that I find a book that manages to write through a feminist lens, while still fitting seamlessly into the young adult fantasy genre, but Weber has done so with ease.
To Best the Boys is a shorter novel as the young adult genre goes, coming in at just over 300 pages. When I was a little more than halfway through the book I worried that the author had spent too much time building the world and that there couldn’t possibly be enough pages remaining to accomplish all that she had started. I was pleasantly surprised to find that she did wrap everything up neatly, and the pacing through the final chapter felt just right. I even found a recipe at the back for the main character’s famous Labyrinth cakes (which I will absolutely need to try as soon as possible.) There were just enough questions left at the end of the last chapter to leave me begging for a sequel, without enough to be frustrating. All in all, an excellent work- Five stars from me.