At first glance, The Mystery of Grace looks like new ground for fantasy writer Charles de Lint. The Mystery of Grace is set in the southwest, not de Lint’s usual Canadian town of Newford. Grace — short for Altagracia — Quintero is a self-described “gearhead,” whose first love is restoring hot rods. Her second love is tattoos, and her body is covered with them.
Once we get past these surface differences, though, The Mystery of Grace is a pretty familiar de Lint fantasy. The book is peopled with the usual array of characters — John, the artist; Dina, his good friend and practicing Wiccan; Vida, a tattoo artist; and Norm, the homeless Native American who sees spirits. This desert town is very much like Newford, de Lint’s iconic magical city.
After the death of her beloved grandfather, Grace discovers that there is a magical plane or “bubble” in her town. She determines to solve the mystery of the bubble and its inhabitants but is distracted when she meets John, a graphic artist who seems perfect but has a guilty secret.
The most original thing in The Mystery of Grace is the love story. The romance that unfolds between Grace and John is not like any I’ve read before, at least for the first two-thirds of the book. Then it slides into predictability.
After the startling opening of The Mystery of Grace, the tension seems to slacken. The timing of the plot is driven, to a large extent, by the Wiccan holidays Beltane and Samhain. These two dates are six months apart, creating an understandable lull in the drama, but generally the characters react with a surprising lack of urgency or anxiety as they make various magical discoveries. No one struggles with disbelief. Grace, despite her ethnic name and heritage, seems a lot like Jilly Coppercorn, except that Grace tends to whine a bit too much about how people react to her ink. The book was published in 2009; where I come from, we see so many tattoos on so many women that we don’t even pay attention to tattoos anymore. I found Grace’s concern and the reactions of some characters implausible.
In the final third of the book, Grace has to face the heart of the magical locus she’s found. As always, when de Lint deals with the heart of magic, the book does come to life. Like any de Lint book, this one is filled with music, in this case rockabilly and surf-guitar instead of Celtic music and folk music.
De Lint tries for something new here but doesn’t quite reach it. I actually felt a sense of dislocation. Everyone acted like they lived in Newford, but then once in a while someone would wander out into the desert or race a car down the interstate. Die-hard de Lint fans may enjoy The Mystery of Grace, especially for the early part of the love story, but this book is not up to his usual standards.