Overall: 4 out of 5 stars
The first book in this 2-book set tells the story of Little Bao, who leads the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1898. The second book follows Four Girl, who, in her quest to have a meaningful life outside of her abusive family, discovers Christianity. Eventually the two storylines cross over in Peking.
Yang does a great job of explaining the essence of the conflict to someone who is utterly unfamiliar with it. However, I’m unsure of exactly where the facts end and the story begins, especially because he employs magical realism to help tell the narrative. The Boxers appear to become the Chinese gods they identify with in order to help them win. Four Girl, who eventually takes the Christian name Vibiana, sees visions of Joan of Arc to help find her calling.
There is some mild drug use (Vibiana’s mentor is revealed to be an opium addict) and lots of violence and gore, plus a small love story on either side. Both sides are represented to be fighting to unify China and save the people. As Mei-Wen, Little Bao’s fellow warrior and Red Lantern leader, says, “What is China but a people and their stories?” (right after he burns her beloved library to the ground).
Mei-Wen cares for people who have been wounded, Christian and non-Christian alike. Her story, along with Little Bao’s struggle between obeying Ch’in Shih-huang (the water god who appears to him) and remaining loyal to Mei-Wen, and Vibiana’s struggles within herself and her own family, who rejects her Christianity – at least partly because her father lost his life in much the same way – all show the complexities on both sides.