Charles de Lint is a god among fantasy writers, and an urban fantasy pioneer. So I guess it's no surprise that with The Painted Boy, he manages to breathe awesome new life into the tired "magical coming of age" story.
There be spoilers below.
I've been a crazed de Lint fanatic since I first stumbled on a copy of Someplace To Be Flying years ago, and went on a major de Lint jag, mainlining as many of his books as I could in the period of a couple weeks. I don't think I've ever read anything by him that didn't blow me away.
So I was excited to see a review copy of The Painted Boy, his new young-adult fantasy novel. When I realized it was about a fusion of Asian and Latin-American folklore, with a Chinese dragon living among Mexican people in the barrio, I was slightly more nervous, because such things can seriously wrong in the hands of a white author. I'm not even talking about the complex issues of cultural appropriation that arise in such circumstances — I'm just talking about the cheesiness that often comes up. As someone who majored in Asian Studies and lived in Asia for several years, I've had cause to roll my eyes more than once at Western authors trying to draw on Asian mythology, and the drek that can result.
Luckily, I needn't have been worried. De Lint certainly takes some liberties with both of the traditions he's playing with, but he never forgets to tell a great story, and never tries to exploit either Asian or Latin-American customs for a cheap effect, or to add more exoticism to his tale. In many ways, this is an American story, in which different gods and magical sources coexisting against a backdrop of our postmodern-ish society.
And like I said, de Lint makes his characters memorable and fascinating enough that you'll feel like you're reading a "coming of age/coming into magical power" story for the very first time. Yes, like Madonna. The Painted Boy is the story of Jay Li, a Chinese-American boy in Chicago who suddenly sprouts a dragon tattoo on his back when he's eleven years old. This means he's inherited his grandmother's mantle as the scion of the Yellow Dragon Clan, and he's basically a dragon in human form. His grandma, PauPau, trains him for six years — then sends him away, alone, to find his way in the world. Jay winds up in Santo del Vado Viejo, an Arizona town overrun by violent gangs, or bandas. Jay has to figure out how to awaken his dragon power — and more importantly, how to use it responsibly — but it turns out the leader of the local gang is also an animal person, a tiger named El Tigre. And the town is full of spirits and animal people, called "the cousins."
It could so easily be cheesy — you can sort of picture people talking in stilted voices about the dragon's claw and brother wolf and stuff. But de Lint keeps it both grounded and intensely spiritual. Mostly, he does not take any shortcuts on Jay's journey to adulthood and dragon-hood, or use any hand-waving or cute gimmicks on the grounds that we've all seen this story before. From the moment Jay arrives in Santo del Vado Viejo, we empathize with his quest to find himself and unravel the mysteries of the power he carries around, as well as the complex world he's entered.
The fact that Jay remains a likable, relatable main character even as he transforms into a super-powerful dragon certainly doesn't hurt — de Lint's customary gentleness of touch is in evidence here, and there's a sweetness that pervades the narrative even as horrendous things happen and people die. Jay is a good-natured, caring protagonist who really wants to do the right thing, but he's not a pushover or a cardboard cutout either. He deals with a lot of dark, weird stuff and heavy expectations without getting ridiculously mopey or self-pitying.
And the lessons that Jay learns aren't necessarily the ones you'd expect, either — instead of "with great power comes great responsibility," what he learns is closer to, "power comes from taking responsibility." He's not just learning how to access his power and use it well, but also to become the kind of person who can hold that kind of power. He's been tossed in the deep end, and although he's had swimming lessons, they were disguised as ballet lessons, if that makes any sense. He has to figure out how to use what he's been taught, to face the unexpected challenges he discovers. And as one character, a young Jackalope named Lupita, tells him at one point, everybody has a stranger inside him- or herself, "it's what lets us surprise ourselves and keeps things interesting." And everybody has unknown power and destructive capability inside, that has to be controlled and mastered, as well.
Jay's relationships, with the people around him and the town of Santo del Vado Viejo, also help to ground the story and make it more complex. Everybody expects a lot from Jay, especially once they're aware of how much potential he has to change the world. De Lint doesn't drag out the process of people finding out that Jay's a dragon — it happens pretty early on, and it means that people start expecting miracles from Jay, especially in a town that's completely downtrodden by the bandas. So not only does Jay have to deal with his hard-ass grandma, who's given him tons of pressure but few answers, he also has to deal with his new friends, who get mad at him when he doesn't clean up the town fast enough.
And in a clever inversion of the usual "dragon" and "spirit world" archetypes, Jay can't really come into his dragon-self until he's connected to the land he's living in and its people, which means that he needs to become more than a superhero or protector — he needs to become a kind of guardian. And the "emperor" that he serves as a dragon turns out to be the land and its medicine wheel.
Many young-adult fantasy or science fiction novels are about people confronting injustice while coming into their power, and it's usually a fairly transparent metaphor for coming into adulthood while realizing that the world is severely fucked up, perhaps beyond anyone's ability to fix. What de Lint does so beautifully in The Painted Boy is take that metaphor and infuse it with new truths.