Boxers and Saints may be the first book on this blog to get double reviews from Jen and me. Here’s her take, and mine is below. Major spoilers ahead!
Two weeks ago I wrote about book hype and how it can raise or lower your expectations for a book. Since September, the most-hyped book on my radar has been Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang. It took months for my request to arrive at the library, so in the meantime I read a ton of reviews and grew increasingly psyched. It had everything going for it: starry-eyed praise, a chilling trailer, a historical setting I knew nothing about, and an ingenious setup–telling both sides of a conflict through a two-volume set.
Luckily, it lived up to the hype. I loved the characters, the humor (Yang gets bonus points for putting humor in a book about a bloody revolution), the art. He also avoids one of my pet peeves: too often, stories set in other countries star characters who speak broken English, which is idiotic, since they’re obviously speaking their native language even if the book is written in English. Thankfully, everyone in Boxers & Saints speaks naturally, and it’s the missionaries who butcher the grammar as they attempt to speak Mandarin to the villagers. Also, whenever we see foreign soldiers talking in their own language (French, English or German), their words look like gibberish, or drunken attempts at drawing Chinese characters (if you squint, you’ll notice how each character corresponds to a letter of the alphabet. With enough patience, you could decode what they’re saying. I managed to find “e” and “a” before my eyes crossed in dizziness).
Most importantly, Yang tells a complicated saga through compelling characters, and the story has enough complexity for me to appreciate the shades of gray. As Jen said, there are no winners in Boxers & Saints. Everybody loses. Under different circumstances, Vibiana and Little Bao might have been friends, but the pull of history–and Yang’s masterful storytelling–was too much. While each volume stands on its own, they’re infinitely better when read together (it makes the most sense to start with Boxers)–hence my insistence on calling the series a book instead of books. Yang kept the surprises coming, and I didn’t even know what I was missing until the last page of Saints.
Part of the mystery was seeing the same events from two points of view. When Father Bey destroys the statue of Tu Di Gong, he plants the first seed of Little Bao’s hatred of “foreign devils.” But the same event doesn’t offend Four-Girl at all. What does she know of gods and operas, when her own family treats her so horribly? Father Bey actually offers Four-Girl hope, because the talk of “devils” sends her back to the acupuncturist in search of a better life (and, it must be said, cookies). Similarly, when the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist kill the men on that train, they never face the women and children left behind–Bao only hears their wails through the walls of the train. Hours later, in Saints, Vibiana sees only the survivors, not the massacre itself, or Bao’s (brief) consideration of mercy.
Speaking of mercy, my favorite parallel was not Vibiana vs. Bao, but Vibiana vs. Mei-wen. Although the two never meet, they create striking mirror images: one grows up in a misogynistic, superstitious family, the other with a father who teaches her to read and appreciate books (see page 312, librarians, and weep). Both yearn to fight for their beliefs in traditionally male roles. And they die while showing compassion, simple acts that went against the endless violence.
My only complaint has to do with the imbalance of the main characters. In various interviews, Yang has talked about his “ambivalence” toward the Boxer Rebellion and how he couldn’t decide who the good guys were. That ambivalence comes across clearly when you consider the wider world shown in each volume: both sides commit atrocities, no one is innocent. Once you zoom in on the main characters, the ambivalence disappears. Bao becomes part of the violent, nationalistic fever sweeping across the land. On the Saints’ side, the crimes are committed by different groups of people–German soldiers, bands of “secondary devil” bullies, etc., all minor characters. They’re not given a chance to tell their stories, as we get with Bao. Meanwhile, we’re continually rooting for Vibiana (the worst thing she does is steal armfuls of cookies), and she isn’t even aware of her side’s role in the war. This lopsided characterization is reinforced by their inner struggles: while Joan of Arc eventually destroys (aka roasts) Vibiana’s Raccoon demon, all Bao gets is Ch’in Shih-huang, a mad emperor who pushes Bao to greater and greater atrocities. He doesn’t stand a chance, which is too bad. I would’ve liked to see his and Vibiana’s life stories told with the same balance as the wider stories in the world they inhabit.