The Painted Boy is a standalone novel by Charles de Lint, following a young Chinese-American teenager, Jay Li. When he was 11 years old, a painted dragon appeared on his back, signaling that in the future he may wield the power of his inner dragon. When Jay turns 17, he travels from Chicago’s Chinatown to Santo del Vado Viejo, Arizona as part of his spiritual journey. Upon arrival, he immediately has to escape angry gang members who believe Jay to be a Triad spy.
Jay does find some friends in town, including Rosalie, who works at the local restaurant, and Anna, who is the guitarist for the local band, Malo Malo. But the gangs have ruined life in Santo del Vado Viejo, and it’s up to Jay to cultivate his inner dragon so that he can fulfill his destiny and clean up the town.
Diverse mythologies and cultures
It isn’t every day that I find fantasy books based on Chinese, Native American, and Latino mythologies and cultures. It is even rarer to find a book such as The Painted Boy that identifies strong common ground among these mythologies and cultures. As a Chinese-American who in part grew up in a largely Latino neighborhood (though the gangs were not nearly as out of control as in The Painted Boy), I appreciated this point of view. As for the Chinese cultural part, Jay’s strained relationship with his Paupau (grandmother) portrays familial and generational tensions quite realistically. As for the Chinese mythology part, I’ve always been partial to tales where animals become humans, as in Legend of the White Snake or the myth of the huli jing. The Painted Boy delivers on these grounds.
An origin story
Jay spends the majority of the book learning to wield his powers, which, while entirely understandable and plausible, would have been more satisfying if this were the first book in a series. As a standalone book, I was disappointed to only get a glimpse of what Jay is capable of. The Painted Boy is not a superhero story, and a “let me use my superpowers a ton” phase would not necessarily be appropriate, but nevertheless I found myself yearning for more.
Not as engaging as I had hoped
The good guys are all likeable enough, and Jay is unassuming and charming, but overall the characters lack any real depth and none of them ever become fully engaging.
The story itself is extremely straightforward, perhaps predictable (though I don’t use the word “predictable” in a pejorative sense). But, in its straightforwardness, the story lacked the substance that I would expect to accompany such rich mythological and cultural material. For example, what ultimately helps Jay control his power is something I found to be somewhat of a cop-out.
The book’s messages are also honorable but a bit hollow (don’t use your power for bad, don’t join a gang, don’t judge a book by its cover, go to school, etc.) because, as presented, I’m not certain it would get through to the target audience. It’s not this book’s job to offer any solutions for gang violence, but the platitudes given in the context of the characters’ situations seem so unhelpful as to be depressing. I would, however, still recommend this book to teenagers. If anything, the interracial friendships are encouraging.
Why should you read this book?
Despite my suspicion that The Painted Boy aims to do more than tell a story (and fails), it’s still a great source for getting a fix of mythologies you may not encounter very frequently in the fantasy genre.