Magic, Sexism, and STEM

“Apparently your feminine wiles are capable of making them idiots, Rhen.”

To Best the Boys by Mary Weber

Synopsis

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.


Stats

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Hardcover
  • 352 pages
  • Expected publication: March 19th 2019 by Thomas Nelson
  • ISBN0718080963 (ISBN13: 9780718080969)
  • Edition Language English

My Thoughts

“Rhen Tellus opened it simply to see if she could scrape off the ink and derive which substances it’s been created from. Using her father’s strangely fashioned microscope. Which is how she discovered that this time the lettering was created from two types of resin, a binding paste, gold flecks, and a drop of something that smelled quite remarkably like magic.”

To Best the Boys is a lot of great and grand things. It is surprising, exciting, sad, bittersweet, and most of all remarkable. Mary Weber wrote a noteworthy book. It is a YA dipped in light fantasy without coming off as silly or unsophisticated, a rare feat nowadays. I cheered Rhen, she is a hero that young and teenage girls can look up to. Who says that women can’t be excellent at science and math? Who says they can’t look at dead bodies and not squeal. Rhen can! Rhen is the person capable of doing the saving, and if you listen to her, respect her opinion, she might help you out along the way and be your savior instead.

Rhen is a woman in her late teens trapped in her families financial situation. They dare to be working class people. Rhen’s parents, her mother born an Upper and her father born a lesser, fell in love and married against her mother’s families wishes. Rhen’s family has been shunned by her mother’s side her entire life. But, in a city built on familial connections, Rhen has been associating with her Aunt and cousin Seleni most of her life. In a bid to help her out of the Lesser social class. Rhen is a bit of a prodigy in math and sciences, and along with her father work tirelessly to find a cure to whatever is ailing the poorer classes in her port town. Those affected include Rhen’s mother. Here is the impetus of the story. Rhen must work tirelessly to find a cure, but Rhen is a woman and therefore not worthy of having her opinions heard. She is stuck in a catch-22 unless she can change the social equation. Each year a wealthy aristocrat and inventor holds a contest of magical and mathematical tests.

“All gentlepersons of university age (respectively seventeen to nineteen) are cordially invited to test for the esteemed annual scholarship given by Mr. Holm toward one full-ride fellowship at Stemwick Men’s University. Aptitude contenders will appear at nine o’clock in front of Holm’s Castle entrance above the seaside town of Pinsbury Port on the evening of 22 September, during the festival of the Autumnal Equinox.”

If Rhen can win the tests, she can gain access to the education that is necessary to help her friends, family, and people of Pinsbury Port fight off this spreading disease. She has the need and drive to succeed in this. What she faces as a contestant is fantastical creatures, science, math, and logic puzzles. As well as other contestants conspiring against her. You know she can do this, but Weber affectively amps up the suspense of the story until the reader is on proverbial pins and needles.

How does this story mimic our world today?


Although we live in a reasonably forward-thinking world, generally speaking, little girls face the same challenges of sexism when it comes to STEM(science, technology, engineering, math). Woman are still considered too illogical by some to be analytical enough to be a scientist. There are still real sociological and environmental barriers that girls need to overcome to become immersed in STEM. This story echoes that. Rhen is a woman continually being told that she does not have the mind and attitude for male-dominated STEM subjects.

Different men in Rhen’s Life


A quality I appreciated in this story was how men were depicted. Men are just as varied in personality, intelligence and spirit as women are. The author could have gone the route of stereotyping the male characters, but she didn’t. There was no type-casting for characters. Each of the players in this story has an individual mind and personality that mimics the variances in actual culture.

Political opinions and class warfare


Rhen comes from a poorer class, and although it is a peripheral plot point, Rhen’s working-class neighbors and friends have to deal with out of touch upper-class people thinking they know what is best for them. Those decisions cause a significant calamity for the working middle class and poor people of this village. It is an important vignette that mirrors political and social change taking place in our world even as we speak.

What I did not like

There is very little not to like with this story. My only slight complaint was that I felt like maybe there was one too many ideas in the plot. The plot line with the town’s fisherman seemed just a little much. Maybe that plot line would have been better seen in book 2.

Should you read this?

Absolutely. I cannot stress this enough, I loved this book. It is exceptionally well written, the plot is interesting, the characters are cheer-worthy. The message is one that can resonate with young girls, and when you get to the end, the reader feels empowered. You want to do better in your life and for those around you after reading this book.

Quotes taken from eARC are subject to change upon publishing.


Discussion Questions

  1. Many times in the story Rhen encounters situations with other male characters in the story that leave her uncomfortable. Rhen is gaslighted, talked over, embarrassed, shamed, and shunned. How does this make you feel as a reader.
  2. Are there other books in the YA light fantasy genre that talk about STEM and girls? How is it portrayed in other stories.

Procurement

I received an eARC of this novel from Netgalley and Thomas Nelson Publishing in exchange for my open and honest review.


About the Author

Hi. I write books. I eat things. I kiss things. I believe in mermaids.

I’m also the author of the Storm Siren Trilogy, The Evaporation of Sofi Snow series, and the March 2019 release, To Best the Boys. When not working, I sing 80’s hairband songs to my three muggle children, and ogle my husband who looks strikingly like Wolverine. We live in California, which is perfect for stalking aging movie stars while wearing fanny packs and sweatpants.

For those who like to know such things (mainly my mom), Storm Siren was featured in the Scholastic Book Fair and my novels have been endorsed by such nice humans as Marissa Meyer, CJ Redwine, Shannon Messenger, and Jonathan Maberry (in fact, Marissa Meyer and I have a fun interview in the paperback of her book, CRESS). Also, Boba tea & sweatpants are life. 

4 comments

    1. Yay!! It is a wonderful book. I haven’t read a book where I actually cheered in a long time. I am so glad you are going to read it. Let me know what you think when you read it.

Tell me what you think!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.