Jay Li should be in Chicago, finishing high school and working at his family's restaurant. Instead, as a born member of the Yellow Dragon Clan - part human, part dragon, like his grandmother - he is on a quest even he does not understand. His journey takes him to Santo del Vado Viejo in the Arizona desert, a town overrun by gangs, haunted by members of other animal clans, perfumed by delicious food, and set to the beat of Malo Malo, a barrio rock band whose female lead guitarist captures Jay's heart. He must face a series of dangerous, otherworldly - and very human - challenges to become the man, and dragon, he is meant to be.
I’ve not read a Charles de Lint in ages. So when I saw someone on Twitter mention his newest novel: The Painted Boy and then, by happenstance, spotted it at Forbidden Planet I grabbed it, paid for it, stuffed it into my bag and carried it home. All the way stroking it and murmurring things like “my precious” “my love” “my only”. What? No one else does this?
The thing about Charles de Lint’s writing is how quickly and how easily you are drawn into the story. I have never in my life been to Arizona. Of course, I know where it is, I know it’s a bit desert-like and a few peripheral things about it. Yet within the first few chapters of The Painted Boy I knew Santo Del Vado Viejo very well indeed. I could close my eyes and imagine myself right there, having lunch at the local restaurant, listening to the band Malo Malo strut their stuff and take long walks in the desert with Ramon to be shown the sights.
Even more importantly than the setting, it was very easy for me to like our main character Jay and to identify with him. Here’s a kid who has grown up with a mystery etched into his skin. A golden yellow dragon appeared on his back one day as a younger child and its appearance heralded that he is to be one of the guardians of the emperor. Of course there are no more emperors but there are people and places in need of protection. So Jay sets off to travel the country to find himself. He goes with his grandmother’s blessing, leaving his parents behind, along with other responsibilities. A word about his grandmother: she’s a tiny fierce Chinese lady who seems to rule the area of China Town they live in, in Chigago. She took Jay under her wing when his dragon got made manifest and she’s been teaching him the fundamentals of looking after himself and his dragon, without actually managing to explain to him the nitty gritty of what it means being part of the Yellow Dragon Clan.
To be honest, I felt that Jay’s journey could’ve become pretty dull. In a sense him taking some time away from his family meant that it was a chance for him to get drunk, party, have a great time, with just a bit of character development to keep the average reader happy. But, instead of this, Mr. De Lint throws Jay in the deep end. No sooner does he step off the bus in Santo del Vado Viejo does a group of the local gangsters spot him and chase him. He makes it across the bridge, leaving the one group of gangsters behind...only to find himself running for his life from another group of gangsters. He successfully hides from them and makes friends with Rosalie who works at La Maravilla, the local restaurant.
I loved Jay and Rosalie’s instant friendship. It was instinctive and natural, with a lot of good humour right from the start. Rosalie introduces him to Tio who runs and owns La Maravilla and Tio too takes to Jay who seems honest and charming and forthright. Jay starts working at La Maravilla as the chef, waiter, busboy, basically anything that needs doing. The kid’s a natural.
Rosalie’s friend, Anna however sees the tattoo on Jay’s back and immediately they wonder if they’ve done the right thing taking in this boy they know nothing of. Is he a gangbanger from Chicago. Is he from one of the Asian gangs the Latino gangs are hearing so much about?
Jay tries explaining to Tio, Anna and Rosalie about the mark on his back, that it’s not in fact a tattoo but something that appeared overnight when he was younger. He explains to them about his grandmother, the heritage of the Dragon clans and specifically about the Yellow Dragon Clan.
There is belief and disbelief, of course. But when it becomes clear that someone in the bario thinks that Jay is more than what he appears to be, and he gets called to confront someone called El Tigre, we have to side with his new friends. The story is so farfetched - can Jay really be a dragon in human form?
Mr. De Lint works so hard in creating this sense of wonder but somewhere at the back of your mind, you can’t help but think: is it real? Is Jay really part dragon? Do we believe him or do we disbelieve him? In a sense CDL plays the unreliable narrator as we are never given a definitive straight outright answer. Instead we are shown and our disbelief makes place for an “I thought that all along” moment.
Jay is a fantastic main character to side with. Intelligent, funny, worried about his sanity and his growing attraction to Anna, his voice is strong and clear. We want to go on this journey with him as he is so engaging. We want to find out about the mysteries he’s involved in and more than anything, we want him to succeed. Admittedly we’re not entirely sure what he has to do in order to succeed but as this becomes clear, as the plot develops and CDL throws in more and more spanners in the works, we get an inkling.
It is rare for me to want to throw a book aside out of sheer frustration because you want things to be a bit easier for the main character. The only other person I think I’ve done this with in the past is Robin Hobb’s books. You want Jay to succeed, to find himself and realise his power and potential. But at the same time you do not want him to lose his humanity and that great sense of humour he has, in the face of adversity which just seems to keep on growing and growing.
The Painted Boy is mythical fiction at its best. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is by far one of the best books Charles de Lint has written in a long while. Don’t get me wrong, all this man’s books are great reads, but TPB has that bit of extra magic that genuinely has you look up at the sky and wonder and yearn for the little mysteries to show themselves.
He weaves together Chinese, Latino, Native American and Celtic mythologies throughout The Painted Boy and gives us a world mythology that works beautifully. Our characters are teens and young people, and in theory this makes it YA but I’m worried that people who don’t read YA may pass this by and honestly, you would be doing yourself a disservice. If you are a fan of mythology and legends and incredibly good writing, do buy yourself / your partner / your friend(s) copies of The Painted Boy. It’s some of the best storytelling I’ve read this year.