The Painted Boy by Charles de Lint

Publication Date:  November 11th, 2011
Viking Juvenile
FORMAT: Hardcover, 431 pages
RATING: 3 out 5 Stars


James 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, he is on a quest even he does not understand. Jay’s 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 not just to survive, but to prove his worth to the clan. This is Charles de Lint at his best!

This book started out great for me; there was just enough mystery within its opening pages that got my attention right away.  Unfortunately, books heady with folklore and myths tend to be heavy on the narrative as well and The Painted Boy suffered from the same symptoms and quickly lost its initial appeal. I finished the book but it took me quite a bit longer. Sadly, it couldn’t maintain the interesting beginning. It lagged and dragged until the seemingly rushed and convenient ending.

The Painted Boy is the story of James Li and his quest to find his purpose and stake on life. The dragon that mysteriously appeared on his back when he was eleven years old held the key to his destiny. Some  say that the dragon and James Li were one in the same; but he needed to understand just how vast the spectrum of his power was. When he ended up in Santo del Vado Viejo, he was comforted by the fact that for the first time in a long time, he felt like he belonged. Never having any life to speak of when he lived in Chicago, the desert town offered him friends, a job, and talks of destinies and training did not exist.

It didn’t take long however, until the violence of living in a barrio, overrun by gangbangers, soon bled into a life he wanted to build for himself. After witnessing a senseless killing of a girl in the hands of a gang banger,  the dragon in him woke up, incinerating the murderer and decimating a building in a fit of uncontrollable rage. Suddenly, he didn’t have a choice but to continue on with the quest on finding himself and controlling the great power within him before it destroyed everything in its path.

My major problem with this book is the switching styles of narration; diarized entries is something that I haven’t been able to enjoy and this book has that along with first and third POVs. There were also several point of views but that didn’t bother me as much as the former.

With the lack of lead Asian characters in YA nowadays, reading about James Li was refreshing. But it was a bit disappointing because I read so little about his Oriental heritage. He was a character in a town populated by Mexican-Americans and aside from mentions of his Paupau (grandmother), don’t expect much mention of his culture. I was looking forward to reading about that element of his character but sadly, it was pretty much nonexistent.

He was also a bit tame, in my opinion. I mean, the primary reason why I picked this book off my Mt. TBR was that I’d expected a bad-ass, kick-ass, defender of the oppressed, hero. He eventually assumed the character, but it took him awhile. Because this is a stand-alone book and James’ wasn’t able to undestand and harness his powers until close to the end, The Painted Boy left me a bit unsatisfied. I’d have loved to read more about this boy and how he’d utilize his powers. The ending was sort of, kind of, open ended but apparently, there’ll be no sequel.

There was also an awkward, out-of-place romance that I felt was forced. This book could’ve gone without it, in my opinion. There was a first meeting and the matter-of-fact description of how pretty the girl was and then it suddenly went into details about how much James was pining for her. I understand boys will be boys but I expected a slow development of attraction not a whiplash. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t an instant-love syndrome; James’s attraction just happened way too fast for me. But in the end, the romance didn’t really go anywhere so I guess my point is…well, what the hell is the point?

The best thing about this book is the myth that we’re all related to animals somehow. I love how Charles spun it in the most believable way possible. Arizona, once again, proved to be the source of the Earth’s teeming life. I’ve read some books regarding the mystical power of the desert and the land and I’m more convinced of its magic.

VERDICT: This book fell a bit flat for me.  I’m not that familiar with Charles de Lint’s work but I’m willing to read more of him. I think he’s got a great talent for story telling based on this book’s original plot alone. If you’re interested in a novel rich with environmental and social issues, give this book a go.

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