Fresh Reads Friday #9: To Best The Boys by Mary Weber
Rating: 4 stars
Every year, the enigmatic Mr. Holm holds a competition for a full-ride scholarship to Stemwick University, one of the most prestigious schools in the province of Caldon. Though brilliant, Rhen Tellur’s gender means she is ineligible for this all boys school. Instead, she works with her father in their basement lab researching the deadly new illness sweeping through the poorer parts of her city — an illness slowly sapping away her mother’s life. When a new mutation in the disease accelerates the disease, Rhen decides that to find a cure, she will need better equipment than what she and her father have scraped together. With her cousin at her side, Rhen disguises herself as a boy and enters the competition.
To Best The Boys entertained me from beginning to end. Mary Weber deftly includes women from all walks of life in a story that could have been oversaturated with male characters. The result is a subtly feminist book that reminds girls that they don’t have to turn down their light to humor the boys around them. Though lacking in racial diversity, I did appreciate that Weber still touched on how wealth and privilege can negatively affect societal structures. I also appreciate the fact that this is one of the few fantasy novels that I’ve read with blatant neurodiversity rep.
Rhen as a main character was an absolute pleasure. From the way she struggled with dyslexia without questioning her intelligence to her focus on facts and science. I loved that in most emotionally charged moment, she would start spouting random facts that pertained (sometimes loosely) to the situation. I also loved the glimpses we got of Rhen’s family and friends. She a very mobile girl socially and because of that we’re exposed to all kinds of people in her world.
The romance in this book was adorable and exactly what I was looking for at the time. It was a little messy — as relationships can be — and the love interest was a little dense at times, but the way the tensions between them led to organic discussion about female agency was one of my favorite parts of the book.
The plot was fast-paced. Weber weaves a series of micro-arcs into the main narrative, keeping the reader on the edge of their seat as they wonder how Rhen and her friends are going to tackle each challenge. I will say that the first chapter is a little muddled, but once you get into the plot things smooth out and it’s much easier to keep track of what’s going on.
This novel definitely focuses more on character than world-building. The world-building isn’t lacking, but if you’re looking for grand, purple prose world-building this isn’t the book. Weber grounds her reader’s in a world equal parts science and magic, but most of the reader’s time is focused on the plot and the characters. I did really appreciate how aware we are, through Rhen, that Rhen frequents male-dominated spaces and while she isn’t afraid to speak up against unfairness she does keep her own safety in mind. That was a nice touch.
If you enjoy pseudo-historical settings and girls who aren’t afraid to be badasses, I definitely think you should check out this book. Also, if you’re looking for more neuro-diverse fantasy, specifically with rep for dyslexia and autism, this is a good one to check out.