Charles de Lint,
The Painted Boy
(Viking, 2010)

Jay Li has a dragon inside him.

It's a literal dragon, symbolized by the massive dragon tattoo that spontaneously appeared on his back when he turned 11. Now 17 and with minimal training from his grandmother -- who's also a dragon -- on what it means to be a dragon, Jay has been sent out into the world to find his place and make his way.

He ends up in Santo del Vado Viejo, a gang-ridden desert community in the American Southwest that's a far cry from his former Chicago home. Fans of Charles de Lint's unique brand of urban fantasy will recognize the fictional city, which was the setting of The Mystery of Grace and may be developing into de Lint's latest urban playground, following on the heels of his real-life home of Ottawa, the setting of many of his early stories, and the sprawling, fictional metropolis of Newford, which de Lint later developed into a rich city landscape over several years of storytelling.

But the city is ruled by active and powerful gangs, and the population lives in fear. Jay isn't sure if he is there to tackle the problem -- or if he even can -- or simply disappear into the crowd and try not to attract their attention. He might be able to make a deal with the devil, so to speak, but the cost to his new friends might be higher than he's willing to pay.

There's romance, too, although the object of Jay's growing affections isn't too keen on his "weird" powers.

Working with a stable of all-new characters, de Lint has begun building an exciting new base for his stories. There are interesting, well-developed characters and a broad new mythology that is only tangentially related to Newford lore. And, perhaps in part because of that newness, I tore into The Painted Boy with extra enthusiasm.

Jay in particular is a fascinating character, torn by fear and responsibility -- or fear of responsibility -- even as he struggles to contain his growing power. The people around him, whether wholly human or living with one foot in another world, provide strong support.

Still, the ending to The Painted Boy caught me off guard.


Longtime readers may be disturbed, as I was, by a new note in de Lint's mythical world. For the first time in my recollection, an immensely powerful being sets itself up as judge and jury over all who live within its domain. A major shift in power in Santo del Vado Viejo comes about because of a broken promise and a murder -- both of which are widely applauded by the masses. And, in this totalitarian regime, people can be punished for talking about breaking the rules.

I kept waiting for there to be consequences for this assumption of power and subsequent might-makes-right philosophy, but there were none. I hope there's further development on this issue in the future.

[ visit the author's website ]

review by
Tom Knapp

8 May 2010

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new