To Best the Boys
When I picked up To Best the Boys, I wasn’t expecting to read a mash-up of The Hunger Games, Mackenzi Lee’s Gentleman’s Guide books and Willy Wonka, but that’s what I got. The book’s constant tendency to boomerang between being ludicrous and fascinating made for a fairly unsatisfying read.
In the steampunk-esque death-plagued seaside town of Plinsbury Port, only boys are given the opportunity to go to college. Every year for the past fifty-four years, seventeen to nineteen-year-old boys of King Francis’ kingdom are invited to compete for a full-ride scholarship and admission to Stemwick Men’s University. The competition – run by the shadowy Mr. Holmes – combines a STEM test with the possibility of blood-sport and the certainty of danger, and provides peanut-crunching entertainment for the masses.
Sixteen-year-old Rhen Tellur is not your average girl. With one foot in the land of the Lowers (the poor) and one in the land of the Uppers (the rich) thanks to a well-off cousin, she’s unexcited about her future duties as a wife and hangs out at her doctor father’s office, creating experiments whenever and wherever she can, even thought it flouts a law that will send her to a workhouse for disobedience if she’s caught.
But Rhen has other problems. She’s attracted to the handsome Lute Wilkes, one of the rebellious Lowers with whom she hangs out, but is being pursued for marriage by the politician-to-be Vincent King, a rich Upper and future contestant in the contest – and someone with whom she once had something in common but now feels the strain of class differences.
At a pre-contest party, Rhen stumbles upon many secrets. She learns about a plot to extinguish Lower industry by shutting the port and putting limits on the fishing industry from which they make their livelihoods, and that Vincent’s friends are willing to pay to ensure their place in the deep end of the competition, with murder being no object and the weakest contestants being the biggest targets. With a mysterious plague wiping out the Lowers – Rhen’s mother among them – and the efforts made by herself and her father to find a cure going nowhere, a desperate Rhen decides to take advantage of a loophole in the rules of the contest, which say it is open to ‘gentlepersons’, not just ‘gentlemen’. Deciding to pose as a boy in order to win her way into the University, and hopefully to gain the medical training she needs in order to save the Lowers, Rhen enters the written examination. Her cousin Seleni agrees to go along as well, but the two girls will be forced to stay on their toes if they want to escape alive.
To Best the Boys is one of those novels that keeps the reader turning pages – it’s nothing if not fascinating. It does some things right, but does many more things poorly enough to keep it from being truly rewarding.
The worldbuilding, for example, is compelling but sloppy. The steampunk-like future world where Rhen lives is amusing; they say things like “what in the pantaloons?” but talk about stem cells and white blood cell counts and yet have sterilizing buckets, so it’s one of those post-apocalyptic futures where everything is autocratic and nightmarishly patriarchal and society runs like a cross between post-Revolutionary France, Pre-WWI Britain and Regency era England; but look, we also have science! The book ultimately overdoses on its worldbuilding and takes too long to properly kickstart the plot.
Heaven knows, the characters aren’t interesting enough to keep one engaged. I liked Rhen best when she was dealing with conflicting emotions about her mother’s illness, or in her friendship with Seleni. She’s smart, but she’s also a very generic YA heroine: not like the other girls, gifted with the power of cunning and intelligence, doesn’t dream of babies or marriage but belongs to herself. She doesn’t do anything that sets her apart from the crowd of other dystopian YA heroines I’ve read.
The love triangle into which Rhen is plunged is painfully pat and seems to exist in the book just because triangles are required in post-Hunger Games dystopian action-adventure young adult novels. Vincent is the classic Boyfriend-who-is-Rich-but-Damaged, while Lute gets into fights protecting his brother, is shy and quietly effacing next to Rhen’s boldness, and is attracted to her intelligence and spirit as well as her beauty. While Rhen’s wavering between trusting herself and doubting her instincts makes sense when you consider her age, you know, simply from reading what I just wrote who she’s going to choose. The luurve triangle swallows over 180 pages of the book, so we’re almost half way through before we get to the actual boy-besting part of the plot!
The supporting characters are the interesting ones – Seleni, who rebels in spite of her belief in tradition and order,and Beryll (Seleni’s fiancé), caught between worlds, and what’s wrong and right. I’d rather the two of them had been the main characters, because watching Seleni grow more outspoken was more interesting than watching Rhen staying in stasis.
I loved the book’s message that there’s no wrong way to be a woman – Seleni’s dream of being a housewife is just as valid as Rhen’s dream of being a doctor. And I liked the virulent descriptions of the horrible world in which Rhen lives. To Best the Boys was a frustrating reading experience with a few redeeming features, which is why it falls squarely into the lower C-grade territory.