The Hunger

July 5, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

hungerThe Hunger by Alma Katsu

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There’s been a lot of positive buzz about The Hunger, and rightly so. A fictionalized, supernatural account of the Donner party from the 19th century, the book tells a compelling story of survival, using real events from history to drive the story. Katsu is a talented writer, with a keen ear for dialog and an understanding of human nature, and her style is subdued enough not to interfere with the story, while showing us everything we need to know to understand it.

The original Donner party carried 87 people, which would have been an unseemly number of characters for a novel. Katsu chooses to focus on only a handful of them through which to show us the trials of the journey. It’s a wise move, but it still takes some time to get into the story, since even though we only have a few point-of-view characters, we still meet many of the significant characters from the journey. Katsu also seems to increase the number of people in the party, though I could be mistaken about that. I seem to recall her stating a number above 100 at one point in the story.

Katsu admits to taking many liberties with the factual story, so it’s hard to tell if her portrayal of the characters is an attempt to be true to life, or if it’s all fictionalized. Either way, her characters show depth and complexity, and it’s easy to get wrapped up in their lives. Going in to the story, we know about half of the characters are doomed, which I’m sure helps to elicit sympathy for them, but if Katsu depended on that to make her characters sympathetic, it works.

The horror she creates to dog the Donner party works well, in that it’s eerie and appropriate, but the horror explains away the choice the party made to eat the dead. That in itself is a horrifying thing to consider, but Katsu, aside from a moment near the end of the novel where she humanizes one of the antagonists, removes the choice from the party when she creates her own supernatural horror. Animals will eat other animals because it’s their nature; there’s no horror in that. The story of the Donner party as it stands is more horrifying than what Katsu creates, which lessens the impact of the novel.

The novel is further weakened by Katsu’s pacing. She covers a lot of time, with a lot of characters, and as a result, large portions of the book feel rushed, particularly at the ending. The final decline of the party takes place in a chapter or two, when I felt, to truly capture the horror of the events, it should have been covered in more detail. Katsu breaks down her story into months during the journey, and I wonder if she felt constrained by that format when she reached the last months, when the party was trapped in the mountains.

I thought a lot about how I wanted to rate this book, stuck between three stars and four. The story is slightly disappointing, especially after all its hype, but in the end, I gave it four stars because Katsu does a fine job telling her story. She refrains from overdone similes, which I’m starting to see more and more in horror, and she captures atmosphere and character well. It’s more literary than what one usually sees in the genre, and that along should give the book a distinction.

Started: June 2, 2018
Finished: June 10, 2018

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Grass for His Pillow: The Way Through the Snow

October 10, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

snowGrass for His Pillow: The Way Through the Snow by Lian Hearn

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This book is the end of Grass for His Pillow, the second book in the Tales of the Otori, and it has the same structure as most second-books-in-a-trilogy: It ends without much resolved. Hearn brings a couple of subplots to a close here, but for the overarching, political plot that covers this entire series, the book raises the stakes and takes us to the heart of the conflict, and then steps away and lets us wait for the next book.

Luckily, I have the next book(s) in hand to keep the story going, but this kind of structure annoys me. Unfortunately, this is how trilogies work now. I’ve noticed it ever since The Matrix Reloaded, but I expect it’s been going on since before then. There are exceptions (The Obelisk Gate didn’t leave me hanging as much as I would have expected, and The Empire Strikes Back is a perfect second-movie-in-a-trilogy in that it does all it should for the larger story while maintaining a structure all its own), but lately it seems like those second books have to end in such a way as to guarantee readers will return for the third. I’d boycott them all together if I didn’t get invested in them for two books.

Hearn tells the story in her unobtrusive style, which is wonderful. Stuff happens, but it always feels like you’re along for a gentle ride, even as it does. Takeo and Kaede continue to serve as the central characters, and their relationship defines the story. The third book, I expect, will bring the overarching plot to a close, as all the preparation and setup of the first two books will collect there, but all of it derives from their relationship.

Hearn continues to tell a good story, though it suffers from being book two in a trilogy. Readers who have come this far with the story will want to keep reading, and those who might be interested in the premise should start at the beginning. It takes a little while to get into it, but once you are, it’s hard to quit it.

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Across the Nightingale Floor: Journey to Inuyama

October 6, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

Across the Nightingale Floor: Journey to Inuyama by Lian Hearn

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journeyJourney to Inuyama is the second part of Across the Nightingale Floor, the first book in Hearn’s five-book fantasy story set in an alternate feudal Japan. It picks up right after the first part ends, and serves as acts two and three of the book. Where we learn of Takeo and Keade’s histories in the first part, in the second part we see them come together, where their lives will become intertwined. Their stories take place against the backdrop of the lords’ politics, in which they will serve a large part, but the story is about Takeo and Keade first and foremost.

Hearn writes well, with her style and characterization carrying the story. There’s a plot to Journey to Inuyama, but Hearn’s narrative takes center stage. It’s not purple or overly distracting; it simply flows well, carrying the reader along in its gentle yet relentless pace. At times, it feels like nothing’s happening, but when you pause long enough to think about the plot, you realize she’s keeping you engaged without any tricks.

Readers of Sword of the Warrior will want to read this book (and should); anyone else attempting to start here will be lost. These are not two books that serve as first and second books in a series; together, they are one story. Anyone with an interest in Japanese culture would enjoy these books, but I would hesitate to recommend them to any fans of traditional fantasy books. The fantasy element is so light that they might find themselves disappointed.

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Across the Nightingale Floor: Sword of the Warrior

October 5, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swordAcross the Nightingale Floor: Sword of the Warrior by Lian Hearn

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The first three books in the Tales of the Otori series were published in two parts. The Sword of the Warrior is the first part of the first book, Across the Nightingale Floor, and it serves as an introduction to everything. It establishes the setting (an alternate feudal Japan) and its main characters (Takeo and Kaede), as well as the political plot this story is to follow. It’s tempting to call this “Game of Thrones in Japan”, but it’s not quite that epic.

Hearn has a lyrical style that flows over the reader like a stream washing over rocks. Her narrative is understated in that it portrays more than you would expect, and the story is rather calm, especially considering that there’s the threat of assassination and other violence in Hearn’s world. She also creates her characters well, putting the focus on them instead of all the things happening around them. Those things are important — they server as the plot — but the story is really about Takeo and Kaede’s coming of age amid all the machinations of the world.

It’s hard to rate these books individually, since it will take two parts to get the full story. So far, though, it’s a compelling read that tricks you into thinking not much is happening. Fans of quiet fantasy should like them, even though the story feels more like a historical one than a fantasy.

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Black Hat Jack

January 18, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

jackBlack Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale

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Lansdale gives us another straight-up western, told in the usual Lansdale style. That means it’s crass and profane, though that shouldn’t stop anyone from reading it. Crass and profane is what you should expect from a Lansdale story, unless it’s written for the young’uns.

Nat Love has been a subject of interest for Lansdale for a long time, according to the afterword of this novella. He’s been working on the book that became Paradise Sky for over thirty years, because he’s felt like blacks in the Old West haven’t been given their due. Of course, the story is fiction, but Lansdale draws on enough history to flesh out the story. Aside from using Nat Love as his narrator, Lansdale also uses the Second Battle of Adobe Walls as its main plot. He brings in enough facts to satisfy the historians, and enough action to keep his story humming along. And hum it does.

Thematically, the story focuses on the brutalities that Native Americans performed on whites, but Nat acknowledges that the whites did the same to Native Americans, as well as to blacks. Toward the end, Lansdale gives us a piece of Texas history, showing how black men, even those who fought against Native Americans and saved white men and women on the way, are mistrusted and treated like animals. He also draws a divide between white and black society during that time, and shows how white people can talk and act big when they’re outside of their own group, but clam up when they’re back inside. It’s a sad take, but it makes the story more than just a shoot-’em-up western; as usual, Lansdale has something to say outside of telling us his story.

Of all the Lansdale novellas I’ve read lately, this is the best of the bunch. Without bringing up the thematic elements at the end, it would have been just another Lansdale story (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but by doing so, he elevates it above that. It touches on what made Sunset and Sawdust such a fine novel, which makes me want to read Paradise Sky as soon as possible. If he can do it in a novella, I can’t wait to see what he can do with an entire book.

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The Boar

November 8, 2016 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, )

boarThe Boar by Joe R. Lansdale

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I was pretty convinced I had read this book before. I used to be a regular customer of Cemetery Dance and Subterranean, so I had a pretty complete Joe Lansdale collection, including The Boar in its first printing. It turns out I owned it, but never read it. I can’t imagine why. Even then, Lansdale was a favorite writer of mine. Earlier this year I went on a “missing Lansdale” ebook buying spree, which is how I wound up having this again, and finally reading it.

The Boar is about Ricky Dale, a fifteen-year-old in 1930s Texas who helps his family on their farm. They live in the Bottoms near the river, and one of the residents in the forest that surrounds them is Old Satan, an old boar with a legendary history. After encountering Old Satan on a walk back to his house in early evening and having the boar threaten his family, Ricky and his friend Abraham take it upon themselves to hunt down Old Satan and end his reign of terror.

With this book, I realized how deft Lansdale is at writing a story. He seamlessly integrates character with setting, seguing between parts of the story that relate to each other while also supplying the necessary background for it all. On some level, I already knew all this (I’ve been reading his work for over twenty years for a reason, after all), but it was fun to finally recognize it.

It’s still not perfect. Though it’s written in Lansdale’s familiar style, it was written with the YA market in mind, so it’s tamer than his usual stuff, though it still touches on his usual themes. The final chapter feels tacked on, like Lansdale didn’t trust that his readers would understand what the preceding events would mean for the narrator. He does that sometimes in his adult books, too, but here it felt clunky and forced. Oh, and “y’all” was misspelled consistently throughout the book. I’ll give Lansdale a pass on it, since it could be the typesetter’s fault, but that’s a peeve of mine. Just so you know, the apostrophe goes between the Y and the A.

The Boar was written some time in the 1980s, long before he had developed his East Texas noir that defines his works like Sunset and Sawdust or A Fine Dark Line. You can see hints of it here in this short novel, though, and I understand some of the characters here also show up in The Bottoms. Lansdale fans will eat this up, and I think anyone looking for a well-told coming-of-age tale would, as well.

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Those Who Went Remain There Still

October 24, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

remainThose Who Went Remain There Still by Cherie Priest

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Imagine a story like the Hatfields and McCoys, where two families feud over the course of generations. Imagine further that the patriarch of the two families has died, calling all of his family back to read his will. Six men — three from each family — are to descend into a nearby cave where he hid his will. That in itself would make for an interesting story, but Priest does it one better by setting Those Who Went Remain There Still against the backdrop of a monster story, as what the men find in the cave is worse than they imagined.

Like Dreadful Skin, this novella uses multiple first-person narrators, but it’s better handled here than it was in that other novel. For one, she limits herself to just three different narrators, one of whom is Daniel Boone, narrating his part of the story one hundred years before the other characters. For another, she does a better job making them sound distinct.

One of the characters is a member of a spiritual cult, and his ties to the dead allow him to see ghosts, which feature into the plot. It seemed too convenient, especially when, late in the story, another character also sees one, though it’s unclear why he does, or who the ghost is supposed to be. It felt a little tacked on, especially in a story where the monster serves the purpose of the supernatural. I get that if monsters can exist in this world, then ghosts can too, but it didn’t seem necessary, except to steer the characters in the right direction.

Somehow, despite the fact that the two families live close to the caves, none of the men who go into the caves knows a thing about the creatures there. Two of the characters have moved away, so it would make sense that they don’t know, but the rest of the family has stayed there all their lives. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the monsters have been there a long time, and that people have gone missing, so why not address any legends or rumors? The cave is called the Witch’s Pit, after all, so wouldn’t the locals at least not be as surprised when they find the creatures?

The thing is, despite those concerns (which, admittedly, aren’t slight), this novella is still a fun read. It feels more like what Priest did in the Boneshaker series than Dreadful Skin, so readers familiar with her adventuresome style in that series will find something familiar here. The story ends rather abruptly, after a lengthy battle against the nameless creature that lives in the caves, but the journey to that point is satisfying.

 

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The Abominable

November 15, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

The AbominableThe Abominable by Dan Simmons

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I’m somewhat amused by the fact that I read this book while also reading Bentley Little’s body of work. Little’s books are all named using the article-noun convention, usually in reference to something plain and innocuous, making them about as evocative as a brown suit. Anyone who’s read Little before knows that his stories will be anything but plain, but new readers wouldn’t get that sense from the titles.

The Abominable follows that same naming convention, but one could hardly call the name innocuous; the title is portentous, and if nothing else, it gives us a pretty good idea of what we’ll find inside. Based on the title alone, readers could expect to find mountains, snow, and possibly something supernatural. The book is about an attempt to be the first to reach the top of Mount Everest, and while there’s mention of yeti here and there (oh, those superstitious Sherpa!), the title could be about them, or it could be about the mountain. As Simmons shows us time and again, scaling Everest is one narrow escape from death after another, as the conditions up there are constantly trying to kill you.

Because if there’s one thing Simmons likes, it’s research; if there’s anything Simmons likes more than research, it’s showing his readers how much research he did. I think The Abominable is to mountain-climbing as Moby Dick is to sailing. At least half of the book is a series of info-dumps conveyed from one character to another (some in an unrealistic fashion) about Mount Everest, mountain climbing, equipment used in said climbing, or how once you cross 26,000 feet, your body is slowly dying. Simmons wants to make sure we get that last point, too; he tells us so at least three separate times. Peppered throughout all that preparation are hints of what the plot will be, and scenes that remind us Simmons still knows how to tell a gripping story, but it really doesn’t get going until about page 300.

Once it does get going, the reader is in for a treat, as they are with most of Simmons’ work. All that research lends a credibility to his writing, which is complemented nicely with his characterization and pacing skills. Even though the info-dumps and exposition lead to a lengthy, somewhat uninteresting first half of the book, it’s hard to say how well the story would work without all that backstory. I think the story is worth persevering through all that introductory material, but I’m not sure I would consider this one of Simmons’ best works; I would recommend new readers start elsewhere in his catalog.

I’m not wild about the framing device Simmons uses for this story. Ostensibly, it’s a found manuscript story, and Simmons writes a version of himself into the foreword and afterword of the book, telling us how he “discovered” this work. I didn’t understand the point of it, since he could have easily used the same framing device using a different character to convey the story. Plus, the story is intended to be a recollection of events that occurred some seventy years before. I always have trouble with those kinds of stories, since I’m not convinced that someone would have such vivid recall of conversations and events so long after taking place, and here, we have the narrator recalling someone else recalling perfectly another conversation. In at least one case, he recalls perfectly, seventy years later, what another person said to him in French, which he didn’t even understand at the time. I have a hard time remembering details of events from just last week, so it’s hard for me to believe in that kind of complete recall.

He also tells the story in the present tense, which is odd, since it’s supposed to be written so long after the events. He addresses that point as he enters the third act, but it’s not all that convincing to me. Plus, in that story, the narrator references things that happen in the future, even as he’s telling the events in the present tense. It seems like a poor choice, especially when the narrator coyly references future events without the prescience of someone telling the story from the future. I mean, at one point in the story, we know he’s talking about Hitler, but he refuses to say that specifically until someone else clarifies that for him. It just didn’t work for me.

All that being said, Simmons captures the perseverance and dedication of the climbers, and the realities of attempting something so physically daunting and seemingly impossible. He shows the humanity of his characters contrasted with the heartlessness that’s necessary to complete the climb. The story inspired me to do some of my own research, and I stumbled across an article about a climber who, near the summit, was exposed, immobile, but still alive, and left by over 40 other climbers who passed him on their way down from the summit. He eventually died, and the article raised the question of whether or not anyone should have done anything for the climber. Rescue missions on Everest are frequently fatal, and people can only spend about 48 hours in the Death Zone anyway before perishing; spending time trying to help a climber who may have already given up can mean leaving two bodies on Everest instead of one. It’s chilling, but it’s also the reality of the situation. I would imagine that most climbers are aware of the risks, and accepting of their deaths in those situations.

The book got me thinking, and I enjoyed the ride, despite some minor concerns over how Simmons structured the story. Already-fans should definitely read it.

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Black Hills

July 20, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

Black HillsBlack Hills by Dan Simmons

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If there’s one thing you have to give Simmons credit for, it’s his originality. He has a history of telling interesting, engaging, thoughtful stories under the guise of genre fiction, but he also has a knack of coming up with stories that you’ve never read before, and likely will never read again. You can find a number of historical fiction novels, and probably more than a handful of historical novels about Mount Rushmore, but how many of those are told from the point-of-view of a Sioux Native American who has the ability to read a person’s past and future just by touching them, and is carrying the ghost of General Custer inside of him, and is working on the Mount Rushmore sculptures?

I think I had been aware before this novel of Mount Rushmore being carved into a sacred Native American mountain, but Black Hills speaks at great length about that fact and the history behind the Six Grandfathers, the name the Native Americans gave to what we turned into Mount Rushmore. It was a sacred place for multiple Native American tribes, and the more you read the book and get a sense of what it meant to them, the more tragic it was that we turned it into a tourist attraction. To me, it’s reminiscent of what ISIS and other Muslim extremist groups are doing and have done to the ancient monuments in the Middle East.

The novel covers more than just Mount Rushmore in that respect, though. Simmons takes us through the lands the Native Americans once called home, showing us many of the places with history and legends of the people, and later shows what happens to them once wasichu (the Lakota word for the White Man) take over. One scene describes Paha Sapa showing his wife the Breathing Cave, the center of his people’s origin myth, and which sometimes steams in the wintertime as hot air escapes the cave in regular intervals, as if it is breathing, but by the time he shows it to her, a homesteader who received the land for free has boarded up the cave and added a door so he can charge admission into the cave.

The novel is tragic, and sad, and even depressing because of the real history behind Simmons’ novel, but it’s also all of those things because Simmons wraps Paha Sapa with those emotions to embody all of that tragedy into a single character. Each attempt at happiness ends in tragedy, and while those moments of happiness are strong and define his character in different ways, the tragedy is still the heart of the story. It’s what drives him to attempt his revenge. And yet, despite the fact that he has lost family, friends, and history to the wasichu, and has reason to want to strike out and take the lives of people who caused that loss, his character is such that he plans his revenge to involve no loss of life.

Simmons has done something extraordinary with this novel. I’m not surprised (he has written more than one extraordinary novel before this one), but he’s managed to combine history with fiction here without it being dull or uninteresting. I’ve mentioned before that framing a historical event with fictional characters is one of the best ways to get readers interested in that history to begin with, and Black Hills is a fine example of doing just that. Paha Sapa is a truly sympathetic character, from beginning to end, where even his few foibles make him likable and understandable.

Of particular note is Simmons’ method of formatting dialogue in this novel. It mirrors that which Charlie Huston uses, which is beginning each line of dialogue with an emdash, without any embedded cues to tell you who is speaking. I’ve been consistently impressed with how well Huston uses this convention — he’s adept at giving you cues in the surrounding narrative instead of having to embed a “he said” into every line of dialogue — but Huston uses that convention in all of his novels. This is the first (and so far only) novel Simmons has written using this kind of convention. It makes me wonder if he read Huston’s work and wanted to attempt this same kind of style in one of his novels.

Still, if Simmons is anything with his writing, it is that he performs extensive research, which is reflected in Black Hills. I was surprised to see that, in his research, he is also frugal. The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair features here in this novel, as it does also in The Fifth Heart, Simmons’ most recent novel featuring Henry James and Sherlock Holmes. It’s just coincidence that I read the two books so closely together (I literally pick my next book to read randomly from a list of books I own), but I’m glad I read these two out of publication order, since Holmes and Henry Adams — also a character in The Fifth Heart — have a cameo at the fair. It’s brief enough and occluded enough to be easy to miss, but it’s obvious that Simmons already had the idea for The Fifth Heart in mind as he was writing Black Hills.

Engaging, emotional, and educational all describe this novel. Fans of Dan Simmons shouldn’t miss it; in fact, fans of good stories shouldn’t miss it either. Simmons has consistently been described as a modern treasure, and Black Hills shows us that he continues to be so.

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Boxers and Saints

September 27, 2013 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, )

BoxersBoxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang

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Gene Luen Yang has a knack for telling stories in an unorthodox style.  American Born Chinese is probably his best-known work, and it weaves a single story out of what appears to be three different, distinct storylines.  Boxers and Saints also tells a single story out of two different storylines, but where American Born Chinese was a single volume, this time the two stories are two different volumes.  It makes sense to separate them.  For one thing, the book would be pretty large, but for another, it doesn’t seem like it would be feasible to weave these stories together into a single volume.

Boxers, the larger of the two works, tells the story of the events leading up to and including the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.  It focuses on one character, Little Bao, who essentially is the single person who organizes the rebellion to take China back from the imperialist foreigners who are taking away their culture.  Like Yang’s other works, there is magic realism in the story, but unlike his other works, there’s actually a historical precedent behind that magic realism.  That isn’t to say that the Chinese actually used magic in the rebellion, but the history tells us that the leaders of the rebellion did believe that they were channeling their Gods when they went into battle.  The story is fictionalized, in that Little Bao wasn’t a real person, but merely an invention to make the story more interesting, and to relate the events back to the reader through the character.

Saints, on the other hand, tells the story of the rebellion from the other side.  This time, Yang invents a character named Four-Girl (the word for “four” in Chinese is a homophone for “death,” and because of her family’s superstitions, she’s never given a real name) who has a poor home life, and finds some solace in Christianity.  She doesn’t adopt Christianity for its religion, but to better embody her devilish nature, which her family tells her she has.  She practices making a face whenever people look at her, to warn them that she’s like a demon, and for them to stay away.  When she hears people in her own culture refer to Christians as demons, she believes this is a better way to have people stay away from her.

SaintsThe Boxer Rebellion was about the Chinese wanting to reclaim their culture from the Western influence, and the Christian religion was an embodiment of that influence.  Where the Boxers began their rebellion against people in positions of power, it shifted to also include Christianity as a whole.  Not only were they killing the Westerners in power, they were also killing Western Christians, as well as Chinese Christians.  So while Little Bao embodies the ideals of the Boxers, Four-Girl embodies the ideals of the Christians in China.  The two graphic novels are tied together by their characters; Little Bao first sees Four-Girl when he is younger, before he begins the rebellion and before she becomes Christian, and then later, after he has taken the rebellion to Peking, and after she joins the church.  Their encounters are featured in both books, but what we learn about them through the encounters differs based on whose story we’re reading.

Like American Born Chinese, the story told through these two volumes is one of culture, identity, and self-acceptance, only this time it’s told through the lens of the rebellion.  What makes the two volumes so interesting is that it’s easy to understand why Little Bao began the rebellion, and it’s easy to understand why Four-Girl chose to become a Christian, enough so that it’s not clear who was on the right side of the rebellion.  This appears to be Yang’s point, that he can understand why these people chose to do what they did, even if they were misguided.  Readers don’t question the motivations for their decisions; instead we question the morality behind those decisions, from both sides of the debate.

The story of Boxers and Saints is such that it makes me want to read more about the actual Boxer Rebellion, which is probably what Yang hoped for when he wrote it.  Beginning the story from the points of view of two sympathetic characters from each side might be the best way to approach the history.

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