Premise: Little Bao is a Chinese peasant tired of the Western missionaries that are infiltrating their country and corrupting it with their religion and ideals. The Westerners are also converting some of the Chinese people to their religion and gaining protection from the Chinese government. Bao creates a rebellion, energized through the visions of Chinese gods, that turns out to be incredibly successful, storming through the countryside and gaining strength as they fight for Chinese values.
At the same time, a young Chinese girl is taken in by some of the missionaries in a search for identity and acceptance. She is the fourth girl of the family but the only one to live, so instead of giving her a real name, her family names her Four-Girl, four being a Chinese homonym for death. It is with the missionaries that she finds love and a forgiveness she dreams for, including a new life with a real name: Vibiana. She faces the Chinese rebellion with an unexpected decision of faith, one inspired by a great Christian follower from the past.
In this two volume series, we see that there are multiple sides to every conflict. When stories intersect, the greatest of decisions are made, and the smallest influence can make all the difference in the world.
Themes: Religion is all over both Boxers and Saints, especially in the way each perspective comes across to the other. Bao sees the Christian missionaries and the Chinese who convert as devils by their corruption and abuse of villagers, while Vibiana converts to become a “devil”, finding the forgiveness and acceptance she was actually seeking all along. When given both perspectives, we can see that it is the individuals who are corrupt or good, not necessarily the religion itself.
With each protagonist being the hero of their own story, perspective becomes key as both Bao and Vibiana experience the conflict with their own histories. How they see people is colored by their past, and when those beliefs are really challenged they learn what true strength, bravery, and compassion are really about.
Pros: Visually, these two books are stunning, with drab browns and grays highlighting the contrasting stunning colors of the Chinese rebels in Boxers and the illuminated gold of the ghosts in Saints. These stories give some perspective on opposing viewpoints that can cause the reader to consider how they judge others. It also emphasizes the damage of war on a country and the terrible things that can be justified on any side of conflict. I liked the way the character stories intersect and come full circle as you read both books, especially mirroring each other in juxtaposition for mercy and compassion for others in the end.
Cons: Compared to Boxers, Saints is a little short. The missionaries come off as unlikeable and evil, even in their own book. The protagonist in Saints has motives that seem genuinely naive for her interest in the Christian faith, though it is hard to believe the missionaries wouldn’t have made it clearer the truths of their religion earlier on in their studies. The connection between Bao and Vibiana seemed a little too open-ended at the end of Boxers, making up for it a little by the decisions they both make in Saints. Most importantly, it’s hard to imagine reading one of these without the other. I’m not sure why these are even offered for purchase separately.
Recommendations: The Boxers & Saints duology infuses an air of fantasy into an historical account of the Boxer Rebellion as we get both perspectives of the rebels in Boxers and the Chinese Christians in Saints. While both of these volumes are interesting on their own, the most impact is made when they are put together as contrasting stories, giving the reader more to consider about worldview and religious beliefs, especially in the context of war. Boxers and Saints are insightful stories that can expand how we perceive the beliefs of others, including for someone with a strong grounding in their own beliefs. If you are going to consider a purchase, make sure you get both books, perhaps in the boxed set.
Gene Luen Yang’s website
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I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.