This is phenomenal.
As ever with books I love, I have very little coherent to say and am reduced to stutteringly incoherent sentence fragments. Believable characters, tragedy and comedy sitting cheek-by-jowl, expertly deployed fantastical elements that add to (but not distract from, which is so often the way) the story, and deceptively naive aesthetics which only serve to heighten the brutal moral greyness that descends about halfway through and chokes everything. Yang makes no excuses for anyone and the ending is crushing in a way you rarely experience in ‘adult’ works, never mind stuff notionally aimed at younger readers. And that, really, is the only criticism I can aim at Boxers and Saints: you have to read them both. This is one story in two volumes: reading the second straight after the first is a necessity and not doing so would create a markedly different and, I suspect, poorer experience.
If you have even a passing interest in the depressing history of European colonial misadventure in East Asia this is essential reading, and even if you don’t, and just like stories that move beyond pat characterization and come even close to the impossibly intricate complexity of real life, then this is something you need to experience. The hype, in this instance, is very much justified.