To Best the Boys
Author: Mary Weber
Publication Date: 19 March 2019
Genre: YA Fantasy
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
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. Every year, 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 are trained in wifely duties and men are encouraged into 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 maze.
I’m going to start this review by saying that as a female organic chemist in a group where I’ve been the only female, this book spoke to the inner doubts of my soul. This was one of those stories that reminded me why I have stayed within my field for so long knowing that it is male dominated and the odds will always be against me.
This is centered around the life of Rhen Tellur. She is a precocious and fiercely independent seventeen-year-old girl whose entire life mission is to bury herself in scientific experiments with her father to find a cure to a disease that is not only ravaging her community but her mother as well. Rhen realizes that their combined efforts are futile whilst using the rudimentary laboratory equipment and supplies she has access to, so she formulates a plan to disguise herself as a boy to enter the labyrinth competition for a prestigious scholarship to attend the all-male Stemwick University, which is sponsored by the mysterious and magical Mr. Holm (who is financially endowed).
I fully empathized with Rhen, and I absolutely loved watching her character develop throughout the story. I found her humble beginnings absolutely heartbreaking because this hit so close to home. I personally comprehend what it is like to have familial troubles be the driving force for an education and not letting anyone or anything stand in your path to success. What made me love Rhen even more is even though she knows that she has a disadvantage, she refuses to allow anyone to pity her or receive a handout. Her mother was disowned from a prominent, aristocratic family because she married Rhen’s father who was of a lower class. Rhen is invited to the elaborate events hosted by her aunt and uncle, but she refuses to immerse herself in that world where people like her are consistently mocked for their inability to overcome their dire situations.
As far as action goes for this book, it is a slow builder, so don’t go into this thinking that each page is going to knock your socks off. The first half of the story lays the foundation for Rhen’s character. You see her digging into the chest cavity of a cadaver, analyzing blood smears under a microscope, and evaluation concoctions to be injected into her rat subject, Lady. I think to most, this is the “boring part” of the story since it’s much more technical but without much “action”. However, as a fellow scientist, I was gripping my seat to know the compositions of her solutions and the findings under her microscope, but hey, not for everyone. To me, this part of the book really highlights how dire Rhen’s situation is because without the advanced scientific training, Rhen and her father will never find a cure for her dying mother.
Once Rhen and the other contestants enter the labyrinth to compete for the coveted scholarship to Stemwick University, I could not read the pages fast enough. So much action happens in such a short time span (due to the challenges that contestants are faced with), which left my head spinning trying to comprehend what I read. The assumptions that I had about other side characters as well as the conclusion were completely unexpected.
This book is what girl who aspire to dream big in the STEM fields have been waiting for. Bravo Mary Weber. This was truly an inspiring and heartfelt read!
Thank you NetGalley and Thomas Nelson for an eARC. This did not influence my review. All opinions are my own.
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