Select one of the keywords
The Painted Boy    by Charles de Lint order for
Painted Boy
by Charles de Lint
Order:  USA  Can
Viking, 2010 (2010)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I'm a long-time fan of Charles de Lint's empathetic, imaginative, gritty urban fantasy, in particular his Newford novels (such as Memory & Dream and The Onion Girl) and short story collections (like The Ivory and the Horn and Muse and Reverie). The Painted Boy is something different yet again, dealing with a teen Chinese American's coming of age and into his heritage of power.

The story opens in Chicago's Chinatown with the Chinese proverb, 'Jade that is not chiseled cannot become a gem', and indeed Jay Li's character is chiseled and polished in all that follows. Though his mother is dismayed to find a dragon tattoo (though not a tattoo in the traditional sense) painfully painting the family crest on her eleven-year-old son's back, Pau Pau (his grandmother) takes on the burden of both explaining the great honor and responsibility he has inherited, and implementing the years of harsh training that follow.

The story then fast-forwards five years, moving south to Jay Li's arrival in the border town of Santo del Vado Viejo, where good people live in fear of gangbangers' violence. Jay Li's Pau Pau had told him to go 'someplace that feels right' (on a kind of vision quest) and this is the spot. Jay Li is quickly befriended by Rosalie, who organizes a job for him in her uncle's Mexican restaurant, gives him a place to stay, and introduces him to her boyfriend Ramon and her best friend Anna (whose brother was killed in a drive-by), both members of the seriously good Malo-Malo band.

After Rosalie receives word from her once close friend Maria (a good student who inexplicably joined the Kings) that drug lord Amada Flores wants to see China Boy, Jay takes that meeting. He learns that Flores is part tiger (just as he has a yellow dragon inside him), and arranges a truce. He also meets local Native American cousins (part human part animal spirits who can step between worlds), one of whom (rattlesnake woman Rita) wants him to fix what's wrong in Santo del Vado Viejo. Jay befriends jackalope Lupita and falls hard for rock goddess Anna.

All goes smoothly until a gangbanger knifes a Malo-Malo musician at a concert. Jay's dragon is unleashed, destroying the killer and almost causing disaster. Jay tries to come to terms with what he has done, to learn to control his power, and to deal with the guilt he feels (exacerbated by Anna's reaction) over letting someone close to him die on his watch. Of course he does work it out, with a little help from his friends and from the otherworld. Helped (but also devastated) by a very brave sacrifice, Jay comes into his full power, and makes the barrio safe again.

The Painted Boy is an engrossing story, that pulls readers in and makes them care about what happens to Jay Li, his friends and the entire community of Santo del Vado Viejo. I very much hope that this is only the first of another excellent urban fantasy series from Charles de Lint.

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.

Find more Teens books on our Shelves or in our book Reviews