I’m actually cheating here – this is a set of two books. I feel somewhat justified in combining them into a single review, however, because they are graphic novels and therefore not very meaty. These books also cover the same historical event – the Boxer rebellion in early 20th century China – from two very different perspectives. Saints tells the story of Four/Vibiana and Boxers tells the story of Little Bao.
Some opening remarks are in order – the novels have a great, clear art style. The author, Gene Luen Yang, has a great sense of humor. He presents the story in a sort of “absolutist narrative.” That is, the story is entirely told from the perspective of the main character – without any exterior check on the content. If one of the characters imagines an animal speaking to them or has a vision of one of their ancestors, it is treated as if it were as real as everything else happening to the main character.
These books are both excellent. I wish I knew which to recommend reading first; in any case, I read Saints and then read Boxers but one could just as easily have read the other way around. The stories intersect at points, creating some brilliant moments – an early example is the visit of a missionary to the village with very different consequences for both stories. The supporting characters are also deceptively deep for a graphic novel; from the Christian couple with a dark secret to the older brother who’s stuck resentfully following his younger brother.
Boxers is easily the more chilling of the two. The Boxers believed in spirit possession, inviting spirits to take over their body and help them fight. Little Bao, the leader of his particular group of Boxers, participates callously in the slaughter of men, women and children. Yet despite this, he is a very relateable character – his initial motives are sympathetic, even laudable. This only makes it all the more chilling when the spirit he allows to possess his body encourages him to commit greater and greater atrocities.
Saints also includes overt supernatural elements. Four girl has a conversation with a raccoon when she is young, and when she converts to Christianity, she has repeated visions of Joan of Arc. Joan becomes a heroine and a role model for Four girl – though she ends up emulating Joan in a powerful, but unexpected way at the end of the novel.
Perhaps some will be bothered by the overt supernatural elements, or the heavy historical material, but the novels manage to keep it very accessible and are not as graphic as they might sound. It’s also lightened up with some genuine, laugh out loud moments – like the first time Four girl sees a crucifix in the home of an acupuncturist and anxiously wonders if that’s what will happen to her when she goes for acupuncture.
In the end, this is the best set of novels I’ve read in a long time. Nothing else I’ve read lately has made me laugh, feel uneasy, fall in love with a character and also left me feeling spiritually reflective and more knowledgeable about a historical event.