This may be the best time in publishing history for books featuring dragon tattoos. Charles de Lint’s latest YA fantasy novel tells the story of Jay Li, a Chicago teenager with a massive tattoo of a golden dragon on his back. All Stieg Larsson comparisons end there, however: the image on Jay’s skin is the work of destiny, not a tattoo artist. The markings appeared when he was 11 years old, signalling his membership in the ancient Yellow Dragon clan.
Jay does not know exactly what the Yellow Dragon clan is, but his grandmother is also a member and insists on putting him through gruelling training exercises while issuing enigmatic lessons and parables. At 17, Jay starts feeling restless. The dragon is stirring within him … literally: he is part-human, part-dragon. On a whim, he heads off to a small town deep in the Arizona desert, where he is chased by two different gangs before taking refuge in a Mexican restaurant. There he meets Rosalie and Anna, the latter of whom he falls in love with.
The girls are surprisingly accepting of their new friend’s scales, at least until Jay accidentally unleashes the dragon within at a concert, killing a local gang member. Unsure how to control his newfound power, Jay turns to members of the other beastly clans that inhabit the town, travelling back and forth between the real world and el entre – a parallel spirit world that acts as a haven for animal clan members and other mystical beings. Jay soon realizes he may be the only one capable of wresting control of the town from the clutches of a powerful gang leader who, like Jay, is not entirely human.
Although the story takes place south of the border, it smacks of Canada in the subtlest and most positive of ways. First is the diverse cast. De Lint’s characters speak English, Mandarin, and Spanish, all seamlessly incorporated into the text. Caucasian characters play only minor roles. This is a refreshing change from the WASPy world of wizards and vampires that has dominated young adult fare over the past decade.
Jay’s connection with nature is a motif found in Canadian fantasies such as Monica Hughes’ Keeper of the Isis Light and Janet Lunn’s Shadow in Hawthorn Bay. In the otherworldly el entre, Jay learns to harness his reptilian powers using his “qi,” or his “understanding of how everything we are connects under, not only our skin, but under the skin of the world around us.”
This business of parallel worlds and animal clans is undeniably exciting stuff, seeming to guarantee an action-packed ride. Sadly, this is not the case. With the exception of two scenes, both full of violence, the story consists of a series of conversations. The narrative structure is like a tedious role-playing video game minus the fight scenes as Jay wanders from one person to the next, gathering information for hundreds of pages before finally taking action. While it is a mistake to insist that a fantasy novel be replete with battles and explosions, it is hard not to grow impatient for some more physical scenes once we discover the protagonist is able to summon the power and appearance of a dragon.
Pacing is also a problem: the climax occurs over one hundred pages before the novel ends. Not only is the denouement ineffectively long, but the plot takes a bizarre and almost laughable turn, with Jay becoming a kind of vigilante dragon-Hulk-Batman hybrid. Supposedly motivated by the death of a friend, he takes an iron-fist approach to protecting the town from gang activity. He burns the clothes off potential criminals. He destroys motorcycles. He even delivers Schwarzenegger-style lines like, “It’s just that somebody forgot to take out the trash.”
The result is an unsuccessful mash-up of mysticism, Chinese legend, and superhero movies. Considering what has been established in the novel’s first 300 pages, it’s hard to believe that sensitive, hesitant Jay would morph into an unfeeling muscleman, dead friend or not. While the burst of activity is a welcome change, it is not only too little, too late; it is too odd.
Young readers lured by the dragon on the cover will likely be disappointed by the lack of firepower within. Indeed, The Painted Boy may be unrewarding to all but the most patient reader. De Lint has created a richly drawn world, but one that is agonizingly slow moving.