Review posted November 15, 2013.
First Second, New York, 2013. 2 volumes, 328 pages and 170 pages.
2013 National Book Award Shortlist
Boxers & Saints is a two-volume graphic novel about the Boxer Rebellion that took place in China in 1899-1900.
The first volume, Boxers, follows Bao, the third brother in his family and shows his encounter with "foreign devils" and how he becomes an enthusiastic leader of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist.
Bao receives training from a traveling kung fu master and learns a ritual which enables him and his brother-disciples to transform into the ancient gods of China when they fight. They travel to cleanse and heal China of the foreign devils and the secondary devils -- Chinese who have converted to Christianity.
The second volume, Saints, looks at Four-Girl, a Chinese girl who does convert to Christianity, even though she barely understands it. She receives a name (which her family never gave her), Vibiana, when she is baptized.
Though Vibiana doesn't really understand Christianity, she receives visions of Joan of Arc, and decides to become a maiden warrior, defending against the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist.
The caption on the back reads, "Every war has two faces." That is the strength of this work. It brings you into the emotions and passions of people on both sides of the conflict. The perspective, in both cases, is from the native Chinese people, and I enjoyed the way when English is spoken, foreign-looking characters are used, since our heroes don't understand English.
This is a book about war. It is violent and brutal. Our heroes are training to fight and kill. There is much blood, and there are many senseless deaths. It's not a very cheery book, and no, you can't call the ending happy.
I like the way both stories had elements of magic realism. Bao had the visions of Chinese gods, and Vibiana the visions of Joan of Arc. The author walks a fine line of letting us see both sides without condemning either side. We see the wild tales each side told about the other -- and we can see that, in both cases, they are extreme, designed to stir people up against an enemy. The two stories do intersect, and I don't think you would ever want to read one without reading the other, which is why I'm reviewing the two together.
This is a powerful look at two sides of a war I knew nothing about.