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.
What Left Me Wanting More:
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.
The Final Verdict:
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.