Saints is the second part to Gene Luen Yang’s historical graphic novels: Boxers & Saints, an imagined retelling of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1901. While Boxers tells the story from the perspective of one of the leaders of the rebellion, Saints imagines the perspective of a Christian convert who suffers through the conquest of the Boxer Rebellion. Raised in a harsh and unloving family that doesn’t even name her, Four-girl finds solace and belonging in the Christian community, taking the name Vibiana after her baptism. Her blood family disowns her and Vibiana leaves her home to work the simple life as a catechumen, teaching orphans and learning the ways of the foreign belief system.
Both novels include an element of spiritual imagining: the Boxers were guided by the the ancestral gods of war to give them strength and in Saints the heroine Vibiana is guided by visitations from the spirit of Joan of Arc. The use of Joan of Arc works well as a narrative tool, as a young woman who fought to defend her native France from the invading English, Vibiana self-identifies with Joan’s struggle. However, Joan’s military background creates some confusion for Vibiana as she believes that she is called to fight the Boxers but later comes to realize that her Christian community is the force of invasion within her native China. Vibiana originally was drawn toward Christianity because her family had deemed her a devil and the “foreign-devils” offered her an opportunity to redefine herself within their community, however as a young girl she vaguely understood the Christian message of peace and community. Ultimately, through maturity molded by adversity Vibiana comes to realize her place is truly within the Christian community as she chooses to make tough sacrifices as the Boxers attack her community.
Having read both Boxers & Saints in a short period, I really appreciate the dual perspective portrayed in both stories. However, of the two books, Boxers was more enjoyable and well rounded as a stand-alone novel. Saints definitely felt as though it relied a lot upon what was already set up in the much larger vision of Boxers. Additionally, Boxers gives away the ending Saints since both main characters interact within the pages of both books. Saints would have been a stronger story if it wasn’t the story of a character within the pages of Boxers but simply the story of a Chinese Christian convert from the same era. The two books together do provide a unique perspective on a slice of history that is not often explored within American culture and for that they are both valuable and enjoyable reads.