The Mystery of Grace: Different opinions

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review Charles de Lint The Mystery of GraceThe Mystery of Grace by Charles de Lint

The Mystery of Grace tells the story of Altagracia — known as Grace — Quintero, a tattooed, rockabilly mechanic who finds her greatest joy in customizing old cars and building hot rods, and John Burns, a graphic design artist. Both of these characters have unfinished business that they need to deal with before they can move on with their lives. But, they meet and fall in love two weeks too late for it to be a happy ending.

It’s difficult to give a good summary without giving away some fairly significant plot details, so let me just say that The Mystery of Grace is Charles de Lint at his finest. One of his strongest talents is the ability to write a world into existence, and for the length of this novel, you feel like you are walking the streets of Santo del Vado Viejo. You can hear it, smell it, taste it.

The Mystery of Grace is different in setting, scope, and content than any of his other novels, but still manages to bear the firm imprint of de Lint’s style. His characters shine in this setting — even the minor characters are fully fleshed out, and have vibrant, memorable personalities.

De Lint has perfectly paced the action in The Mystery of Grace. The first chapter captures your attention, and the story unfolds with impeccable timing. Love at first sight is a difficult plot device to portray convincingly, but here it works. Grace’s actions after the final confrontation at first bothered me slightly, but as I’ve sat and thought about it, the indecision Grace displays fits in perfectly with her character’s development, and now it seems like the only way it could have unfolded and worked with the rest of the story. The last few paragraphs are a flawless finish to a compelling tale. I got to the last page, and turned it in vain, hoping there would be more story. I didn’t want this story to end.

Charles de Lint has been called the master of urban fantasy, but his books are a world away from the current crop of trendy novels that feature vampires and the women (or men) who love them running amok in a big city. This is fantasy that deals with timeless issues in a modern setting. There are no elves or gremlins, just the wonder that de Lint imbues in a tale of loss and the mysteries of faith. His amazing ability is to make the normal seen capable of containing the fantastic, if we only knew how to see it.

I cannot recommend The Mystery of Grace highly enough.

~Ruth Arnell


fantasy book review Charles de Lint The Mystery of GraceAt 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.

~Marion Deeds

The Mystery of Grace — (2009) Publisher: On the Day of the Dead, the Solona Music Hall is jumping. That’s where Altagracia Quintero meets John Burns, just two weeks too late. Altagracia — her friends call her Grace — has a tattoo of Nuestra Señora de Altagracia on her shoulder, she’s got a Ford Motor Company tattoo running down her leg, and she has grease worked so deep into her hands that it’ll never wash out. Grace works at Sanchez Motorworks, customizing hot rods. Finding the line in a classic car is her calling. Now Grace has to find the line in her own life. A few blocks around the Alverson Arms is all her world — from the little grocery store where she buys beans, tamales, and cigarettes (“cigarettes can kill you,” they tell her, but she smokes them anyway) to the record shop, to the library where Henry, a black man confined to a wheelchair, researches the mystery of life in death – but she’s got unfinished business keeping her close to home. Grace loves John, and John loves her, and that would be wonderful,except that John, like Grace, has unfinished business — he’s haunted by the childhood death of his younger brother. He’s never stopped feeling responsible. Like Grace in her way, John is an artist, and before their relationship can find its resolution, the two of them will have to teach each other about life and love, about hot rods and Elvis Presley, and about why it’s necessary to let some things go.

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RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit’s staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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7 comments

  1. that’s too bad. I used to read a TON of DeLint, back in the 90’s and early 00’s. The last book of his that I really enjoyed was Someplace to be Flying, and it seems that a lot of his newer stuff is just retellings of the older stories. again, it’s too bad. He’s got so much talent, I wish he’d use it to do something new and different.

  2. Redhead–me, too!

  3. I don’t know, I consider myself a pretty die hard fan and I was bitterly disappointed by this book. I did not like the direction he took the characters in and felt that the payoff of the ending was no payoff at all but was instead a tremendous let down.

  4. Carl, it is so hard to write about this book without spoilers, but I know exactly what you mean–like, there should have been one more sentence, at least, at the end. I think de Lint ended up confronting the reality of his own world, which is good, but it killed the drama. I went back and read Ruth’s review of this book (on this website) and she loved it! Everything I gave as a weakness she thought worked beautifully, so there you go. Different people, different reactions.

  5. Not to pimp my site, but here is my review in case you are interested in my thoughts at the time:

    http://www.stainlesssteeldroppings.com/the-mystery-of-grace-charles-de-lint

    And you are so right, writing about this one without spoiling it is nigh impossible. I’ve occasionally done dual reviews, spoiler and non-spoiler ones and looking back I really should have done a spoiler review to address all my feelings about this one. I was bitterly disappointed in it.

  6. Carl–I liked your comments on your site! I think you hit the nail on the head.

  7. Thanks!

    I’ve read a few of de Lint’s short story collections since then and have enjoyed them tremendously, but haven’t ventured into any of the novels since then. I hope my next experience with one is not like it was with The Mystery of Grace.

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