Review: Boxers and Saints

From IndieBound: “Boxers & Saints is an innovative new graphic novel in two volumes – the parallel stories of two young people caught up on opposite sides of a violent rift. American Born Chinese author Gene Luen Yang brings his clear-eyed storytelling and trademark magical realism to the complexities of the Boxer Rebellion and lays bare the foundations of extremism, rebellion, and faith.”

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Title: Boxers (336pp.)
Title: Saints (176pp.)
Author: Gene Luen Yang
Genres: History, Fantasy, Graphic Novel
Publisher: First Second
Review Copy: NetGalley
Availability: September 10, 2013

Boxers Summary: China,1898. Bands of foreign missionaries and soldiers roam the countryside, bullying and robbing Chinese peasants.

Little Bao has had enough. Harnessing the powers of ancient Chinese gods, he recruits an army of Boxers – commoners trained in kung fu who fight to free China from “foreign devils.” Against all odds, this grass-roots rebellion is violently successful. But nothing is simple. Little Bao is fighting for the glory of China, but at what cost? So many are dying, including thousands of “secondary devils” – Chinese citizens who have converted to Christianity.

Saints Summary: China, 1898. An unwanted fourth daughter, Four-Girl isn’t even given a proper name by her family. She finds friendship—and a name, Vibiana—in the most unlikely of places: Christianity. But China is a dangerous place for Christians. The Boxer Rebellion is murdering Westerners and Chinese Christians alike. Torn between her nation and her Christian friends, Vibiana will have to decide where her true loyalties lie . . . and whether she is willing to die for her faith.

Review: Gene Luen Yang brings the Boxer Rebellion to life in Boxers and Saints. Presenting the differing perspectives allows the reader to have a better understanding of the causes and motivations of the characters. These novels depict many atrocities towards men, women and children. Some of those actions are hard to take, but they do make a certain kind of sense when you see everything that led up to them including the misperceptions they have of the other culture. For the main character, Little Bao, the foreign devils are completely evil. They have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. As a result of a run in with the foreigners, his village and family have suffered greatly and the horrifying tales he hears only add to his negative opinion, so it is no surprise that he takes up arms against them. What may be harder to understand is his anger and hatred of the Chinese that follow the Christian ways. Using the multiple perspectives Yang manages to show the gray areas of this conflict. The characters themselves see everything as black and white, but the readers are given enough information to realize that the water is exceedingly muddy and many emotions and events lead others along their paths.

Boxers and Saints dealt with much more serious matters than I had expected from the opening. We are treated to scenes of fairs, Chinese opera, and see a young boy’s eagerness to learn martial arts. The art around the Chinese opera characters is stunning. The colors are vivid and the artwork is carefully detailed. Boxers soon becomes a battlefield though and much blood is spilled. In the midst of all the death and destruction, Little Bao is learning about himself and trying to align his philosophy with what he thinks he is “supposed” to believe. In addition, Four Girl, the main character in Saints, is trying to find her place in the world. She doesn’t want to just accept the place she has though. She wants to make the place that is right for her. These two young people have the same kinds of wishes that any teen might have, but their circumstances are extraordinary.

I found Boxers and Saints emotionally challenging. Witnessing man’s inhumanity to man is always draining for me. The characters feel so real that it is hard not to become involved and the scenes are intense. For readers looking for action, there is plenty of that. They may be surprised by the amount of thinking required though. I believe readers will follow the story even if they don’t have background knowledge of the Boxer rebellion, but I would imagine they will want to find out more by the time they are through. I went on a hunt for more information. Yang provides a nice bibliography at the end so readers can easily do that.

Recommendation: Buy it now – or at least get it as soon as you can. This is a beautifully illustrated and well told tale that you won’t want to miss.

Extras:
Essay by the author “The Boxer Rebellion and Pop Culture”

Book Trailer

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