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A Reader of Fictions: Graphic Novel Review: Saints

A Reader of Fictions

Book Reviews for Just About Every Kind of Book

Friday, September 6, 2013

Graphic Novel Review: Saints

Boxers & Saints, Book 2

Author: Gene Luen Yang
Pages: 176
Publisher: First Second
Publication Date: September 10, 2013
Read: September 4-5, 2013
Source: Finished copy from publisher

Description from Goodreads:
China, 1898. An unwanted fourth daughter, Four-Girl isn't even given a proper name by her family. She finds friendship—and a name, Vibiana—in the most unlikely of places: Christianity. But China is a dangerous place for Christians. The Boxer Rebellion is murdering Westerners and Chinese Christians alike. Torn between her nation and her Christian friends, Vibiana will have to decide where her true loyalties lie . . . and whether she is willing to die for her faith.

Boxers & Saints is a groundbreaking graphic novel in two volumes. This innovative format presents two parallel tales about young people caught up on opposite sides of a violent rift. Saints tells Vibiana's story, and the companion volume, Boxers, tells the story of Little Bao, a young man who joins the Boxer Rebellion. American Born Chinese author Gene Luen Yang brings his trademark magical realism to the complexities of the Boxer Rebellion, and lays bare the universal foundations of extremism, rebellion, and faith.

Previous Book in Series:
1: Boxers

First Sentence: "I am my mother's fourth daughter, born on the fourth day of the fourth month and the only one of her children to survive past a year."

Saints is a companion graphic novel to Boxers, which takes on the opposite perspective: that of a secondary devil. This terminology may not be familiar to you, so allow me to explain. A secondary devil is a Chinese person who has converted to Christianity, thus aligning themselves with the foreign devils. Saints covers the same time period, but has only one moment with the same scene happening, though it does offer further insight into the events of Boxers just the same. Though they're companions, I do think reading them in this order does work slightly better.

In Boxers & Saints, what Yang really digs into are people's motivations. How does an unassuming Chinese boy grow up to kill his countrymen as a Boxer? Why would a young girl convert to Christianity, rather than sticking to the gods of her country? Yang doesn't set out to teach the reader exactly what happened; there aren't any specific dates or anything like that. Instead, he shows the feelings and the ways of thinking that led to the bloody battles and the hatred. Boxers & Saints are nuanced, subtle and thought-provoking.

The main character of Saints made a brief appearance in Boxers, as the girl young Little Bao wanted to marry when he grew up because her face resembled an opera mask. Four-girl, so called because she was the fourth child to the family and believed to be a devil and to represent death, has no true name and is not beloved of her family. She tries to get them to accept her, but all they see is how she falls short. As a child might, she begins to act out for attention, by making a devil face. Her mother, sick of the comments from others about Four-girl's devil face, takes her to a Doctor, who happens to be a Christian, and he convinces her to stop with the devil face.

When Four-girl learns about the foreign devils, she is thrilled and eager to learn about their religion. Though she doesn't necessarily find the Bible compelling, what she gets from Christianity is the acceptance she's always craved. On top of that, they finally give her a name: Vibiana. Though Vibiana does not entirely understand Christianity or what the stakes are, her new religion is so important to her, because these people, these foreign devils, accepted her where her own family would not. That's why she would put her life on the line rather than renounce her faith.

As I mentioned in my Boxers review, the Boxers would put on the guise of Chinese gods, but, in Saints, you can see that there are actual humans fighting the battles. With this technique, Yang makes it clear that the guises of the gods are metaphorical, the boys so convinced of their victory because they have their gods' approval and support.

Similarly, Vibiana has visitations from Joan of Arc and even Jesus. The one from Jesus is fascinating, as he has the same eye marked on his hands that the old man who gave Bao the method to take on the guise of the gods had. I'm not entirely sure what point Yang is making with this, perhaps that all religion comes from the same source? The reason I bring this up at all when I'm not sure myself is to show how complex Boxers & Saints are and how well they will fuel discussions. I could see them being an excellent classroom resource, a fun, easy read that looks at the Boxer Rebellion, war and religion in an entirely different way than a textbook.

I did personally like Saints slightly less than Boxers. This may be because there's a good deal more text in this one, and it does lean a bit towards YOU ARE LEARNING NOW, as Vibiana is instructed in the ways of Christianity.

Boxers & Saints are best read together back to back, so the reader can fully flesh out the commonalities between the two and look at the many nuances. They're fairly light on text and heavy on character motivations.

Rating: 3.5/5

Favorite Quote:
"Joan: 'Shhh! My king receives his crown!'
 Vibiana: 'Ah. So the ugly man gets a fancy new hat.'"

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Blogger fakesteph said...

These both seem like really insightful stories and I love the graphic novel format! I'm so glad you reviewed them. These are some of my favorite topics that literature explores.

September 6, 2013 at 12:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This sounds like a really interesting read, especially describing how the Christian religion isn't very popular in China, since I'm Chinese and I want to read these two companions just to see how the whole religious aspect is dealt with. I'm glad that you still enjoyed Saints, although less than Boxers.

Fantastic review, Christina! :) <33

September 6, 2013 at 4:36 PM  

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