Review | Boxers and Saints, Gene Luen Yang


I was completely blown away by Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints, a two volume graphic novel series that depicts the 1898 Boxer Rebellion in China from the perspective of both sides.

In Boxers, Little Bao has had enough of the way foreign missionaries and soldiers have been robbing and bullying Chinese peasants. Channeling the power of ancient Chinese gods, he raises an army of Boxers, kung fu-trained peasants, and they wage a rebellion against the foreigners. Despite their lack of resources, the power of the gods is on their side, and they are successful in their fight.

17210470I love how Yang keeps the story complex — it would be all too easy to simply cheer on the Boxers in their fight, but Yang shows how their anger drives the Boxers towards violence, sometimes beyond reason. The fight as well isn’t just against foreigners, but also against “secondary devils” — Chinese citizens who have converted to Christianity. In a particularly powerful moment, Bao and his army “rescue” a train of Chinese peasants from foreign missionaries, violently slaughtering the missionaries and then turning to the peasants in triumph. Rather than expressing gratitude, one of the Chinese peasants picks up a Bible and attempts to continue the prayer. This not only confounds Bao, it enrages him — a Chinese turning Christian is a betrayal, and Bao’s response, coupled with Yang’s sketches of the utterly terrified peasants, is chilling.

Boxers begins as a coming of age, kung fu training story, and turns into a potent emotional wallop of political history. Bao is a complicated hero figure and ultimately a tragic figure of a man. War scars you, and Yang does not shy away from depicting this scarring even amongst the fantastical illustrations of Chinese gods. Bao’s struggles feel real, and Yang writes his character so well that you understand Bao’s choices even when you can’t agree with them.

Possibly my favourite part of Boxers is the Red Lanterns, an all-female army led by Mei-wen that joins the Boxers in their fight. It’s great seeing women warriors play such an important role in the rebellion, and shattering glass ceilings all the way back in 1898.

17210471A woman inspired by Joan of Arc is the heroine of Saints, which explores the other side of the story. An unwanted fourth daughter, Vibiana finds love and belonging with a kind Christian couple, and converts to their religion. We see the Boxer Rebellion from the perspective of Christian Chinese, to whom Bao’s army aren’t heroes but rather terrifying figures. While Bao’s position in the rebellion has always been clear-cut, Vibiana is much more conflicted, and in many ways, a much more intriguing character, torn between loyalty  to her heritage and devotion to the community that took her in.

Saints is disappointingly much shorter than Boxers — without the kung fu training montages or the need to set up the beginning of the rebellion, Viviana’s tale is kept relatively blood-free until the second half. I wish Yang had delved a bit deeper into the perspective of the Christian Chinese, particularly what so many of them had found appealing about the new religion. Still Vibiana’s story is compelling enough to give pause to Bao’s victory, and when their stories intersect — a rather brief encounter where neither knows the other’s story — Yang’s restraint in the scene belies the emotional impact of the moment.

Boxerand Saints is a powerful story and its impact is heightened by presenting both perspectives. The back of the book has the tag line “Every war has two faces” and the covers side by side illustrate this with discomfiting symmetry. Both these books bring the Boxer Rebellion to life and make this moment in history feel real and more than that, feel personal.


Thank you to Raincoast Books for a copy of these books in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Battling Boy, Paul Pope

BattlingBoyAIn this graphic novel by Paul Pope, monsters run rampant through Arcopolis, eating the children, and the city’s hero Haggard West has been killed. Enter twelve year old demigod Battling Boy who, along with Haggard West’s sidekick and daughter Aurora, rises up to save Arcopolis.

Battling Boy is a fast paced, exciting coming of age superhero story. The young demigod is kicked out of his home to prove himself in a rite of passage that will make him a hero. Armed with the ability to harness animal powers depending on the shirt he’s wearing, Battling Boy has to defeat the Arcopolis monsters and save the city’s children in order to earn the status of adulthood and the respect of his father, a very Thor-like figure. The story hints at a far richer mythology behind that rite — perhaps even more challenges after the monsters are defeated, and sets the stage for what could be a pretty epic series.

The coming of age element is prominent — in his first battle, Battling Boy is unable to think quick enough to win on his own and has to call his father for help. His father, battling his own monster on another planet helps him out but then warns him not to call for help again. In a clear allegory for the moment young adults face when beginning to feel the demands of adulthood, Battling Boy must face the realization that his father will not always be there, and that he must learn to face his monsters alone. Pope takes this to the next level when local politicians begin using Battling Boy as a figurehead, and the demigod must learn about the hypocrisy and compromises that also constitute the adult world.

Along with the coming of age is an interesting twist on the Chosen One mythology — Battling Boy is certainly a “Chosen One” from the point of view of the city he has to save, yet from his family’s point of view, he is merely fulfilling one task among many. He is not necessarily the only one who can stop the monsters in Arcopolis — Aurora certainly looks like a more than capable hero on her own — yet he still has a mission he needs to fulfill.

Aurora’s story seems more the typical origin tale — grieving over her father’s death and desiring to avenge him and continue his work, she uses his arsenal to take over his role. I actually find her more intriguing than Battling Boy, and part of me wishes the book were about her instead. She isn’t a demigod; she’s an ordinary human girl who had been trained by her father to protect the city, and who now feels the burden of fighting on without him. While this is a task that will prepare Battling Boy for a lifetime of such missions, this is Aurora’s whole world, and so her stake in it feels much more personal and immediate.

Paul Pope is known for his frenetic artwork and action-packed storytelling, and Battling Boy certainly fits into that mold. It’s a fun, fast-paced superhero story, and a start to an exciting series.


Thank you to Raincoast Books for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | An Echo Through the Snow, Andrea Thalasinos

13122120Last spring seemed to be my season of dog books. I read and reviewed both Puppy Love and A Dog’s Journey, both novels that, like The Art of Racing in the Rainspeak about the bond between a dog owner and their pet. Andrea Thalasinos’ An Echo Through the Snow depicts a different kind of human/dog relationship by exploring the world of competitive dogsled racing.

Rosalie is stuck in dead end jobs and a horrible life until she meets Smokey, an abused guard dog she takes under her protection. Being placed in a position of responsibility over someone else forces Rosalie to mature, and more importantly, leads her to discover a sense of purpose and a job helping a local couple train dogsled teams.

The bond between Rosalie and Smokey is touching, but it’s interesting to see the difference in dynamic with human characters and the dogsled team. Despite the clear affection, the dogs are primarily there to be trained, and to work as a team, rather than to provide companionship to their owners. As such, there is less anthropomorphizing in this book, as well as more focus on the human characters’ stories. I found myself caught up in Rosalie’s story — painfully shy, troubled, and dealing with an abusive husband, Rosalie is a sympathetic figure, one who grows and develops through her experiences with the dogsled team. Apart from an unnecessary (in my opinion) plot twist, this storyline is well done, and one I think Thalasinos should have spent more time developing.

Less successful, in my view, is the parallel storyline, of a Chukchi woman named Jeaantaa, Keeper of the Guardians (Siberian huskies), who lives around the time Stalin’s Red Army is about to invade her land and displace her people. This storyline had promise and a compelling beginning — Jeaantaa is dealing with the death of her childhood sweetheart and so devotes herself to her role as Keeper to her community’s dogs. The future security of these dogs, however, is placed in jeopardy, and she then has to fight to protect them.

A promising beginning, but one that unfortunately failed to maintain the momentum. It may be because of the constant switching between story lines without any sense of real connection, such that it felt like I was reading two separate books put together in a rather slapdash fashion. Or perhaps I just found Rosalie’s storyline more interesting. Jeaantaa’s story just seemed disjointed, and less interesting than I’d hoped. I wish Thalasinos had developed the storyline in more depth and revealed more about the Chukchi people and how the community felt about the impending threat to their way of life. This could have been a rich, evocative historical piece, but as it is now, I just wish Thalasinos had done away with this storyline and focused completely on Rosalie instead.

An Echo Through the Snow is a different kind of dog book, one that keeps the focus wider than the bond between a human and her dog. The Jeaantaa story line could have been more interesting, and the Rosalie story line definitely did not need that plot twist, but overall, an interesting read for dog lovers.


Thank you to Raincoast Books for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.