Charles de Lint, the genre's standard-bearer for contemporary fantasy (I refuse to call his work urban fantasy, if only for the fact that label has since been taken over by a different kind of pure escapism entirely), offers a story about life, death, love, and what may lie beyond this mortal coil in The Mystery of Grace. It's territory he's covered before, but he does it so — pun unavoidable — gracefully that his body of work has become defined by its sensitivity to character, and to the way human beings attempt to confront the unknown and unexpected in the course of trying to live what are already hard lives.
There is much to love about this haunting and emotionally textured story, though, for my own tastes, I had to back down from the four stars it was getting due to some choices de Lint makes towards the climax, which I will attempt to explain with, at best, concealed spoilers. I have a feeling after I've explained them you'll know whether or not what bothered me will bother you, at which point you're free to scale the rating upwards. If you're a longtime de Lint fan, go ahead and do so now.
The title is a double, or even triple entendre. There is the literal mystery of Grace Quintero, our heroine, what has happened in her life and why. There is the other, more obscure meaning of "mystery," as another word for "spirit" or "ghost." And there is the thematic mystery: what is grace, and how do we achieve it in our lives? I'm currently scanning my dictionary widget for "grace," and I see a handful of religious definitions that describe being favored by God or some similar being. But I don't see one that I think should be equally if not more valid: cannot grace be said to be simple dignity in the face of adversity, or in the face of, well, anything at all? Isn't grace all about choosing the noble over the ignoble in how one faces life...or death? I think it can and should mean that.
De Lint's setting is a southern Californian Latino community, focusing specifically on a subculture of car enthusiasts, hot-rodders and gearheads, set to a soundtrack of old-school rockabilly and surf music. It's so tactile in its realization that you can almost smell the motor oil and asphalt and feel the gravel crunch beneath your shoes. Grace Quintero is one of the guys: a tattooed rebel chica from a traditional Catholic family whose life is the cars she works on as if they were marble sculptures, carrying on a legacy and a passion bequeathed by her grandfather. In Grace, de Lint's gift for character is proved once again to be virtually unequalled by most of his contemporaries in fantasy. There's a scene here where someone tells Grace that, by getting to know her, he's discovered new things he never thought he'd like, and one gets the sense that de Lint experienced the same epiphanies of discovery when researching a culture and lifestyle he'd never written of before.
Grace's boyfriend, whom she meets one Halloween night, is John Burns, an amiable but aimless artist in whom Grace has inspired a sense of direction and open-mindedness towards new experiences. The problem is that Grace and John — both of whom have had to deal with personal loss — are able to see each other only two nights a year. Every other review of this book you're going to read will spoil what the circumstances are that has led to this. Since Tor's jacket blurb has managed to avoid it, I will too (though savvy readers among you have probably guessed it). What would be, in lesser hands, the setup for another routine paranormal romance is transformed by de Lint into a meditation on life and especially the unhappy decisions we all put off but must make one way or another. The best paranormal fiction is that which uses paranormal tropes not as gimmicks for cheap thrills but as metaphors for our daily lives. Death is inescapable, and it's how we choose to confront it — with fear, denial, anger, or with grace — that shapes our capacity for happiness in whatever time we have. It's hard to let go. But what if hanging on simply led to limbo? Would that be better, or worse?
Everything in The Mystery of Grace defies convention for so long — not even the love story wraps up quite the way you expect — that I felt a little let down when, in the interests of explaining one of the story's principal mysteries, de Lint jumps into fantasy cliché with both feet and decides he has to offer us a Scary Villain. The thing is, Grace's internal conflict has felt so agonizingly real up to this point that I wish de Lint had trusted in it enough to carry the book across the finish line. Moreover, de Lint gets way too religious in his storytelling here. Which I suppose might annoy religious readers less than it did me. But I think that depending upon your own beliefs, you might find it offensive too. De Lint doesn't want to alienate anyone, so he takes an ecumenical approach that essentially delivers the message that it's faith that's important, not necessarily what you have faith in. Most religious people I suspect might beg to differ there.
But it wasn't simply the book's veering into a kind of pop spirituality that bugged me so much as what it meant for de Lint's heroine, which I'll explain in white Conceal-O-Text to minimize spoilage: By requiring Grace to rely upon the proverbial "higher power" to defeat her adversary here, he's undermined her own strength, her own personal growth, the faith that she needed to discover not in some canonized, Church-approved saint but in herself. But mostly, the book resolves with the kind of conflict it didn't need. Peter Beagle didn't need to fall back on such banalities as saints and wicked witches to make his points in A Fine and Private Place (a book to which The Mystery of Grace bears some resemblance), and I wish de Lint hadn't either.
Still, to whatever degree The Mystery of Grace stumbles in its final scenes, for the most part it's a deeply heartfelt and memorable tale that understands that the mysteries which really compel us — such as what may or may not await beyond the veil — are the ones we'll never solve. It reminds us how rarely we connect with what's most precious until it's too late, and how we take for granted what we do have, until its loss underscores how much it meant. When Grace and her friend Conchita leave us on the book's final page, I wanted to hold them close just a little longer. Letting go is hard.