Charles de Lint: The Painted Boy

At first glance, Jay Li seems like your typical teenage boy, but he’s anything but average: he’s a member of the Yellow Dragon clan, and possesses an unbelievable amount of power in his slim frame. And, as we’ve heard time and again: with great power comes great responsibility. For six years, Jay’s trained with his formidable grandmother Paupau, also a member of the clan, and now that he’s seventeen, Jay’s been sent off on a quest to find himself, wake the slumbering beast within and make a difference in the world.

Only problem is, Paupau didn’t give Jay much concrete direction how to do any of this. Or where. So he blindly points at a map and picks the small town of Santo del Vado Viejo, Arizona, a place surrounded by the grandeur of the desert, but ruled by the fear of the violent bandas, or gangs. And before you can say “Dragon scales!”, Jay’s found new friends – including a crush – a job, a place to stay and become embroiled in bandas politics.

However, it’s very obvious that despite the painting (of a gold dragon) on his back and his years of training, Jay doubts his both dragon and his potential. Despite his misgivings, Jay opens up to his new friends, telling them everything, eliciting a mixed reaction: half doubt, half believing he could rid the town of bandas in a heartbeat if he’d only put his mind to it. But Jay remains doubtful that he can do much of anything, and it takes a tragedy to catapult him into action and bring his dragon to the fore with a vengeance.

Estranged from his friends in the wake of the tragedy, Jay must quickly come to grips with the reality of the dragon and take responsibility for the well-being of the town, which means confronting the local bandas leader, El Tigre. If he succeeds, then the hard part begins – maintaining the peace for all. If he fails … then the world is regrettably less one dragon.

The story unfolds in third person for most of the novel, but there are occasional chapters told from Jay’s point of view. Since these interludes tend to overlap with the chapter prior to them, the effect is somewhat jarring, disrupting the narrative flow. While younger readers may identify with De Lint’s teen characters, they never really seem to move beyond generalizations – rocker girl with good reason to hate the bandas, saintly girl who’s good at school and fond of taking in strays of all species, rocker boy who’s in tune with nature – these characters, or others very like them, can be found in most of De Lint’s work. The real stars of this book are the beautiful desert – both around Santo del Vado Viejo and in el entre the spirit world Jay and others like him can travel to – and the Cousins, who are animal spirits of a sort. There are crow boys; javelina boys; the adorable jackalope Lupita; wise old lizard Senora Elena and the mysterious snake, Rita. Lupita, with her whimsical sense of humor, steals every scene she’s in – hopefully De Lint revisits her at some point.

While somewhat uneven, the novel’s blend of Chinese and southwestern mythologies is intriguing and the trials of Jay’s personal journey will surely strike a chord with teens (note: there is some violence that may not be for much younger readers). And, as always, De Lint’s love of music and nature shines through.

(Viking Juvenile, 2010)

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