The dark side of urban fantasy doesn't always have to be the magical side. Sometimes, the mundane world is more than able to create its own problems. But when the magical comes to fix what the mundane has messed up, things are much more complicated than it seems.
In The Painted Boy by Charles de Lint, 17 year old Jay Li has struck out on his own to escape his overbearing spiritual leader and grandmother Paupau. He chooses a city in the desert of Arizona at random, packs a backpack and heads out to Santo del Vado Viejo. Directly upon exiting the Greyhoudn bus he ends up crossing not one but two of the local gangs, and is hidden and eventually taken in by Rosalie.
Rosalie has a tendency to take in strays, as her collection of dogs and cats show, and he can't help but want to help this newcomer to town, especially since he's ended up crossing the gangs so quickly. Having lost both family members and a best friend to the gangs already, she has a special hatred of them, which is backed up by her uncle and guardian, who left the gangs years ago and now runs a restaurant in town.
As Jay lives in Santo del Vado Viejo and becomes a member of the community, the secret that he's been hiding since he was ten years old begins to come out. He's been chosen as a leader of the Yellow Dragon Clan. When the spirits selected him, the symbol of the clan appeared on his back in the form of a full back tattoo depicting a Chinese dragon. Of course this only helped to isolate him when he was young, since he certainly couldn't let any of his friends or classmates see his back. This meant no swimming, no gym class or sports, and no sleepovers.
But Jay and his dragon spirit have found their new home and place to protect. In the process, he's also learning more about himself from the local lore and the other animal 'cousins' who inhabit the desert around the town. And as time goes on, one fact becomes painfully clear: the gangs are killing the spirit of the land, and it's up to the Yellow Dragon, traditional guardian of the Chinese imperial family, to save it.
As always, de Lint seamlessly weaves the desert southwest folklore, along with Native American and Mexican stories into the real wold in a manner that seems almost real. We meet crow people, a jackalope girl, and perhaps even a coyote spirit as Jason takes back the city from those who are destroying it, and most of the mundane, 'five finger folk' will never know exactly what happened.
That doesn't mean that de Lint glosses over what a town in the grips of a gang war goes through. Good people get killed for stupid reasons, or no reason at all. Businesses leave town, pay protection money, or are shut down by petty gangbangers. Families lose members, either by death or, sometimes worse, by having members join the gangs themselves.
The grandfather of urban fantasy has created yet another wonderful story, which might reach out better to boys than his other two recent young adult books The Blue Girl and Little (Grrl) Lost. It might even been a good pick for urban schools in which the students face the same problems as the townsfolk of Santo del Vado Viejo, and help show them that people really can make a difference, even the mundane ones.
Highs: And intricate weaving of both Eastern and Western folklore
Lows: Several false endings break up the flow of the story near the end
Verdict: Young Adult fantasy at its best
Further Reading: Little (Grrl) Lost, City of Bones