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Gene Luen Yang – Boxers & Saints

August 5, 2015

31 & 32. Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang (2013)

Length: 328 & 172 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction / Mythic Fantasy

Started/Finished: 18 June 2015

Where did they come from? The library.
Why do I have them? I’ve liked Gene Luen Yang’s other books and I’ve seen these referenced a lot.

With good people who
are trying to do right on
both sides, no one wins.

Summary: Boxers and Saints are two complimentary books that each tell the tale of a young person on one side of the Boxer Rebellion in China.

In Boxers, in 1898, the Chinese countryside is terrorized by foreign devils and their soldiers who are raiding villages, destroying shrines, and killing peasants. After this has happened in Little Bao’s village, he begins to train with a kung-fu master, Red Lantern, and so do several of the other young men. They learn the secrets of summoning the power of the ancient Chinese gods when they fight, and form the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist, dedicated to wiping out the foreign devils to protect the Chinese people from their depredations and influence.

In Saints, Four-Girl is the fourth daughter, unwanted and unwelcome in her family. She finds acceptance and friendship with a local doctor and his wife, who also happen to be Christians. Four-Girl becomes a Christian and is baptized as Vibiana, but it’s a dangerous thing to be in a time when the young men of the Boxer Rebellion are seeking to rid the country of Westerners and Western influence. But Vibiana – who has seen visions of Joan of Arc since she was a girl – is not content to be meek, but wants to defend her people against the rebels at any cost.

Review: This is really embarrassing, but before reading these books, the only thing I knew about the Boxer Rebellion was that it was when Spike had killed his first Slayer on Buffy. (In hindsight, my “World History” classes back in high school were really much more European history.) But even though Yang’s version has a number of mythic/supernatural/fantasy elements to it, I think it gives a quite clear picture of what the conflict was about, and how it played out, in a way that’s more complex and nuanced than you might ordinarily expect from a YA graphic novel. As you’re reading each book, you first come to the conclusion that its protagonists are clearly in the right, and that they’re being unfairly persecuted… but the lengths that each side is willing to go to in order to do what they think is right makes you less and less sure. Ultimately, we’re left feeling like neither side is entirely in the right or in the wrong, but both wind up being changed by their violence, and both ultimately wind up a high cost – no happy endings here. It does wind up feeling very balanced, with no taking of sides – not something I’m used to encountering in my history/war stories.

The two stories are relatively independent but intertwined – Little Bao and Vibiana encounter one another briefly in childhood, and then again as adults in the thick of the rebellion – but they really need to be read together in order to get the whole perspective and the whole story. I don’t know if there’s an official recommended order, but I read Boxers (which is substantially longer) first and Saints second, which worked out well – I think knowing who Little Bao is and what he’s doing with the Boxers is more important for understanding Vibiana’s story than the reverse. I also liked Boxers‘s story a bit better, although this likely because it was a longer book, so it was more developed, and there was more action, and essentially more plot to Bao’s story than to Vibiana’s. I also thought the supernatural elements were better integrated in Boxers than in Saints – it made more sense to me that Bao would be summoning ancient Chinese gods than that Vibiana would be seeing Joan of Arc. But taken together, these books are present an interesting, engaging read that brings up a lot of interesting ethical questions about the nature and cost of war. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: They’re pretty violent, so maybe not for younger kids, but I think these books are a really worthwhile read for anyone who wants to learn more about the Boxer Rebellion, or who is interested in a balanced perspective on what war and peace really costs a country and an individual.

Boxers: This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon
Saints: This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Estella’s Revenge, Reading on a Rainy Day, Waking Brain Cells, and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. buriedinprint permalink
    August 5, 2015 12:45 pm

    The first one left me slack-jawed, the second gob-smacked. I think these are essential reading for those who don’t study these conflicts in school (I did not either!) but, as you’ve said, they also are incredibly stimulating for discussions surrounding many broader issues related to conflict and war. So powerful!

    • August 9, 2015 11:28 am

      I’m especially impressed that such a balanced picture came from a single author – usually in order to get both sides of the story on a conflict, it takes two perspectives from two different people.

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