Book Review: Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Posted 02/05/2014 by alicemarvels in Graphic Novel




Genre: ,
Publisher: First Second
Release Date: September 10, 2013
Page Count: 512


thoughtful and beautiful portrayal of a complex political struggle; wonderful characterization; stunning artwork and color


moments of violence are disturbing (though not gratuitous, just realistic)

A beautifully complex, emotionally charged look at a historical struggle from two very different perspectives.

I confess to knowing almost nothing about the Boxer Rebellion that occurred in the early 1900’s in China before reading Gene Luen Yang’s fantastic duology Boxers & Saints, but through his masterful storytelling and vivid illustrations, I saw this clash of wills through a very personal and empathetic lens. Each book focuses on one side of the conflict, and we meet two young characters who, despite being very similar, find themselves on opposite sides of this struggle by capricious twists of fate and upbringing.

If all historical events were presented with such an even, fair account of motivations on all sides, the phrase “history is written by the victors” would fall by the wayside. Both Four-Girl/Vibiana and Little Bao begin their stories in abject poverty, powerless and dependent on others, seeking acceptance, safety and a sense of belonging. Both are swept up in extremism and give themselves over to a higher power, clinging to any story or legend that may make them bigger, grander, and more in control of their own lives. And in that giving over of power they lose some of the humanity and innocence that once connected them.

The illustrations are beautifully rendered. Little Bao’s merging with the Gods leaps off the page in vivid color and with dynamism. Vibiana’s visions of Joan of Arc are beautiful and austere, and it’s easy to see why a young girl raised on Christianity in an era of utter powerlessness for women would idolize Joan and fantasize about her stories.

Watching two children grow up in a colonized country in a state of religious tumult and cultural upheaval and ultimately ending up in dangerous opposition to one another is harrowing, and feels like a familiar story, one that plays out in countless countries and eras, even today. It is impossible not to empathize with and root for Little Bao as he fights the “foreign devils” and alternatively to fight for and root for Vibiana to defend against the rebels who threaten her safe Christian haven.

Boxers & Saints are two thought-provoking reads that overlap and intersect beautifully in unforgettable, emotional ways. I highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys substantive historical fiction and spirited graphic novels.


Read an excerpt here.


Watch the trailer:



    Our librarians have been touting this one to all students who like manga — and it’s selling! I don’t know if this is a book for me but I like the setting and the premise so…maybe!


    I am the same way, I know absolutely nothing about this event but I am so glad that this could be fun and educational at the same time.


    I did a disservice to myself and read them individually. I read Saints first since Boxers was checked out at the same time. Individually, the story doesn’t uphold much, I felt the important themes didn’t quite give the impact I was hoping for. I do have Boxers now from the library and I do intend rereading Saints afterwards to see if my opinion changes. I really hope so.


    I’ve never even heard of the Boxer Rebellion, how sad is that? It would do me some good to learn a little more world history:) I would thoroughly enjoy the illustrations in this one I think (not that I wouldn’t enjoy the story, I just gravitate toward artwork always!) so I’m adding it to the list. Thanks for bringing this story to my attention!


    Oh right yes that, I read a romance set during this once…not really that good either 😉


    I really loved these two books as well. It’s definitely a great way to view a moment in history, getting an equal look at both sides.


    I have heard such amazing things about this book that I really want to read it. The whole story sounds so good and I like characters. I do like when violent scenes are realistic. It makes me love the book even more. Great review, Lauren 🙂


    I’ve heard of it (Boxer Rebellion), but knew nothing of it other than the title. Hm… might have to see how this one is done especially in manga form. Very interesting!


    My son likes Manga..I think I will grab this for him, lovely review and I must admit to be curious about this period myself.


    I have a different book by the same author. I NEED to read it! I wish I was teaching more World History, so I could use them in class.


    I have never read a graphic novel before, which is weird to me because I think I’d enjoy them. I love that this one is also thought provoking too!

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