Review: Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints

Gene Luen Yang's BoxersGene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints are companion books telling two stories from opposite viewpoints. The stories are told through two characters, Little Bao and Four-Girl, based on the historical and violent Boxer Rebellion movement in China that started in the late 1800s in which pro-nationalists tried to rid China of foreigners and Christian missionaries. Boxers tells of the pro-nationalist point of view while Saints tells of the Chinese Christian point of view. Although each book is sold separately, they are intended to be companion pieces to each other, even so far as to have covers which can be matched together to form one larger cover.

Boxers starts off peaceful with the introduction of our main character, Little Bao. He sees a girl in the passing distance, who becomes the centerpiece of the story in the Saints novel. Little Bao’s world is shaken up after a Christian missionary visits and offends the locals by destroying the idol representing an earth God. The locals band together to form a group to fight the foreigners and the Christian influences. The group members, when they are fighting, turn into various Chinese characters of Chinese literature such as the Pig Demon and Monkey King, a character explored in Yang’s past graphic novels, from the Chinese novel Journey to the West. In their character incarnations, they attempt to reach Beijing to save China and fight off the foreign imperialism through very violent conflicts.

Gene Luen Yang's SaintsSaints tells of a different story, one in which the main character, Four-Girl, is ostracized from her family due to a very superstitious grandfather who considers a child born fourth as evil, representing death. Four-girl tries to deal with her dismissive grandfather by turning to a talking Raccoon and a mysterious angel solidier, after being introduced to a Chinese Christian Doctor, who is hired to rid her of evil. Four-girl begins studying Christianity through the Doctor and eventually takes the name Vibiana as part of her conversion to becoming a Christian. However, being a Christian during the rebellion is wrought with violence and Vibiana has to decide on whether she sides with China or her Christian faith.

Taken together Boxers & Saints shows two sides of a story about war and in war there are no happy endings. Yang creates complex characters that make tough decisions based on their own life experiences. The stories unfold in such a way that you, as a reader, are not sure if you should like or hate the characters and that is what makes these stories compelling. There is no judgment on which side is ultimately right or wrong, it showcases the horrors each side faced during the rebellion.

Being a fan of all Gene Luen Yang’s past work, my original intent was to have my 10 year old son read these books after I read them but I think I will hold off letting my son read them until he is a little older. Unlike Yang’s previous works which worked on multiple levels that all ages could enjoy, I think the subject matter in Boxers & Saints is geared more for mature reader, perhaps 13 years of age and older. There are complexities in the stories which would not likely be understood by younger children and the violence depicted is rather graphic. While the novels are sold separately, I would highly recommend that these be read as a set. Hopefully these stories also inspire readers, as they have inspired me, to learn more about the Boxer Rebellion.

Boxers & Saints is published by First Second and is available from many book retailers including Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Review originally posted at AArisings.