As I write this up, I have a confession: Like Brandi before me in her decision regarding Fangirl vs. In the Shadow of Blackbirds, I don’t know which book I will pick yet. I’ve always been someone who has to talk things out before I can come to a decision and until I finish this post, I will be in as much suspense as you are right now reading this – except I can’t scroll down to the last paragraph to peek at the final answer! Enough delay, on to the analysis.
I think I will analyze in the order I read these, so let’s begin with Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang with coloring by Lark Pien. I read these for the first time back in October and loved learning about a part of history that I knew next to nothing about (and the little bit I do know is from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so it doesn’t count, right?). If you can untangle it from the magical realism, Yang has packed a ton of historical detail into both the story and the illustrations. After reading both volumes, I felt I had a fairly clear picture of the causes and course of the rebellion. Yang isn’t just talking history though. Boxers & Saints has a lot to say about faith, loyalty, belonging and compassion. Choosing to make this a duology strengthens every theme Yang explores because we see how those themes thread through both Bao’s and Vibiana’s very different journeys. What struck me the most on this first read through, in fact, were full page spreads that echoed one another in each volume – on pg. 282 of Boxers and pg. 158 of Saints. In each case, that full page spread stops you dead in your tracks. In Boxers, it’s a portrait of “Guan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion – the goddess with one thousand eyes to look for suffering and one thousand hands to relieve it.” In Saints, it’s a portrait of Jesus as he speaks to Vibiana and commands her to “Be mindful of others as I am mindful of you.” Each figure is surrounded by hands that all have an eye in a center of their palm – an image that speaks strongly of compassion – and each portrait is surrounded plotwise by events that lay bare the lack of compassion that war requires.
On my second read, I mostly found myself contemplating two things that Karyn Silverman over at Someday My Printz Will Come (http://blogs.slj.com/printzblog/2013/11/25/boxers-saints-or-what-defines-book-anyway/) commented on. One was whether Bao and Vibiana are actually seeing visions of Gods and Saints or if they are simply a little crazy. Are they just trying to find comfort and direction and, without any reliable adults to turn to, creating their own spirit guides from the corners of their minds? I doubt this reading would ever have occurred to me on my own, but, for me, it deepened the themes of faith and belief. The other think Karyn mentioned was Lark Pien’s coloring and on the second time through – the coloring is brilliant. The majority of the panels in both volumes are done in muted, sepia tones. In Boxers there are pops of color for when the Boxers become Gods, blood, and occasional pivotal panels – one of soldiers in uniform, another of Bao backed by fire. Then comes Saints, and the only color pops are the gold that Pien has used for the spirits Vibiana sees – bringing home the contrast these ghostly visits bring to Vibiana’s cramped, narrow, bleak life.
But enough about Boxers & Saints. What about Far Far Away by Tom McNeal? I faced a bit of a conundrum when reading this one – I had read so much about it online that I already knew major plot points, most importantly, the identity of the villain, the Finder of Occasions. I was worried this would ruin the suspense of the book for me, but it turned out not to bother me in the slightest. In fact, I loved seeing the clues that had been laid to the Finder’s identity all along – piecing together the puzzle of how the Finder came to terrorize Never Better. I had read a lot about how many weren’t sure this was suitable for under a certain age, and, while the Finder’s methods are certainly disturbing, I was relieved that there was not appreciably gory violence involved. Far Far Away contains elements from two of my favorite genres, mystery and fantasy, so I went into this match expecting it to walk away the easy winner. However, fairy tales form the backbone of this book and, in the end, I think that’s why I didn’t connect with it as much as I had hoped. The characters didn’t feel full except for Jacob Grimm and Jeremy and while that wouldn’t bother me so much in fairy tales, which are constructed around archetypes, in a novel it bothers me much more. The women in particular seem to be either perfect (Ginger, Jenny Applegarth) or terrible (Jeremy’s mother). McNeal has written a great book here, but since I have to pick only one winner, the flat characters knock this one out for me.
So, there you go – I’ve talked myself to a winner: Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang for the successful meshing of fantasy and history in service of theme and for that brilliant coloring by Lark Pien.
Winner: Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang, coloring by Lark Pien