To Best the Boys by Mary Weber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
All Rhen Tellur wants is to find a cure for her dying mother. But two things stand in her way: first, she's a Lower so no one is going to take her seriously as a scientist and second, she's a girl so no one's going to take her seriously as a scientist. There's only one way to get into university--to best the boys in Holm's annual scholarship competition, and then somehow convince the university to let her take the entrance exams.
To Best the Boys has shades of The Hunger Games in it--to win the full scholarship, the boys enter a labyrinth where they must defeat the levels, and each other, to emerge the winner. It's hinted that boys have died before, though only because they didn't play by the rules.
In some ways, the world feels briefly sketched--you don't get a full picture of Caldon, but you know that it's a dangerous place. Sirens and ghouls are bloodthirsty; it's best not to be out in the dark when the mist is about. There's magic in this world, but Weber never really tells us what it is or how it works. Does Holm perform real magic? Or are they just illusions? What truly happens in the Labyrinth? It's masks and illusions, rather like V for Vendetta: what's real and what's not?
Yet at the same time, you also feel that you don't need it fully sketched out--the problems they face seem too real, too much like the real world. There's a stark divide between the Uppers and the Lowers, where the ruling elite make decisions for the working poor without understanding the full impact of what they do. The anger the men of Pinsbury Port feel is all too real--the unthinking anger that fills us when we feel trapped by our circumstances, by the things that those entrusted with our welfare betray us.
Weber is at her best when she's tapping into Rhen's emotions; the awkwardness of youth and young love, anger at the injustice of life and societal expectations, the passion that informs her rash decisions and the strength she gains from true friends. As smart as Rhen is, she has her blind spots, especially when it comes to Lute Wilkes and Victor King.
The Labyrinth reveals the characters of the youth of Caldon, even as it forges them in the fire of its trials. And Holm stands in judgement of their worth.
Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Thomas Nelson via Netgalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.
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