Charles de Lint is without doubt one of the best loved writers among our reviewers here.
It was a typical winter afternoon as I sat down to read The Mystery of Grace — cold, wet, and a driving sleet falling hard, so it was no wonder that a good novel was in order! This is the first novel in nearly fifteen years from this writer which is not set in his city of Newford. Newford is a setting which has, for the most part, dominated his writing since Memory & Dream, which was published in 1994. Over the dozen years that followed the publication of that novel, another six novels, several novellas and myriad short stories that were also set primarily in Newford would follow, along with one work in the desert Southwest USA, Medicine Road. It is worth stressing before we get into this review that my favorite Newford novel, Forests of The Heart, which I re-read every few years, is also set partly in the desert Southwest USA. So I had great hopes for this novel.
Were my hopes cruelly dashed? No, not at all as it’s a cracking good outing by him! Why so? Because it’s a ghost story and it’s not set in Newford. In brief, as Charles says on his Web site:
Grace works at Sanchez Motor Works, customizing hot rods. A few blocks around her small apartment building is all her world — from the grocery store where she buys beans, tamales and cigarettes to the library, the little record shop, and the Solona Music Hall. Which is where she meets John Burns, just two weeks too late.
Now it is true that this is not de Lint’s first novel-based ghost story, as that honor belongs to The Blue Girl, but that was a superb Young Adult novel set firmly in Newford.
(Some reviewers have said the novel’s set in southern California. All I can say is that the setting is a southwestern or possibly California community with a major Latina/Latino community, and with a definite focus on the subculture of car enthusiasts, all set to a delicious soundtrack of rockabilly and surf music.)
In an email, Charles confirmed that The Mystery of Grace is not set in the Newford continuity, but is set in the same continuity as Yellow Dog, a superb short story. Like this story, this is an entirely different affair than the Newford stories which, over the decades of de Lint telling those stories in that setting, have developed a sometimes bewildering complexity. The Mystery of Grace is, like a good mystery novel, a svelte affair at under three hundred pages — as opposed at the nearly six hundred pages that Widdershins, the final Newford novel weighed in at. Now don’t get me wrong, I really love fat novels, such as his Forests of The Heart or Someplace To Be Flying, when they are done right, but I equally love short novels done right, say Dash Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon or de Lint’s Seven Wild Sisters.
What grounds this novel, despite some improbabilities that occur during the course of the story, is de Lint’s portrayal of the two main characters. Grace (sort of dead though she can cross over at certain points in the year ) and John (very much alive though not terribly happy). Without giving away anything of what happens, I can say that we have two strong characters who know what they want and are prepared to do whatever is needed to get it no matter what the cost. Just remember what Dylan Thomas once said (…though lovers be lost love shall not / and death shall have no dominion…) and you’ll grasp what must ultimately happes here.
It is a perfect introduction to de Lint, as it doesn’t requite you to have read anything by him at all, but gives you a good feel for what he is like as a writer, as it has well-crafted characters, believable settings, and a story that will hold your interest. And it is a novel that you will read again to get some of the nuances that get missed in the first reading.
These are three of the cover art done for this novel: the top’s the Tor hardcover, the second’s the hardcover library edition and the bottom’s the art on the galley that I was sent. It seems that Tor wanted something a lot less dark than that image!
Update: it would be his last novel on Tor. Don’t worry, he’s done very well since then. Check him out here.