Michael Gruber, “Tropic of Night”

There’s energy on every page.

Put a toe in the water of this book and suddenly you are water-skiing (barefoot, of course) at 100 m.p.h.  Michael Gruber’s style is engaging and sucks you in. You will go for a ride.  I was right there.  I waded through all the lessons in Santeria and voodoo and magic potions. I enjoyed the trip on this big, pumping happy-with-itself storyline.  I’m sure you could have cut 60 or 100 pages but that wouldn’t have given “Tropic of Night” its larger-than-life feel.  “Tropic of Night” is sprawling and ambitious.  Because I like cop stories and mysteries, I easily latched onto Jimmy Paz.  He gave me an anchor through the book; I looked forward to seeing him return and enjoyed the banter with his fellow cop, Cletis Barlow, who is prone to cite Bible verse to make his points.  Gimmicky?  Not in Gruber’s hands.

Paz was my through-line on the plot.  He’s cool.  Every good book needs a cool cop. He’s “a stocky, muscular man of thirty-two, the color of coco matting, with a smooth round head, on which the hair had been cropped almost to the skin. His ears were small and neat and his eyes, set in lanceolate sockets, were large, intelligent, warm brown in color, but not warm at all.” (Lancelote means longer than wide; I had to look it up.)

Paz is a recognizable character but like all of Gruber’s characters are big, live large and have pushed the boundaries of normal.  For instance, in the case of Paz, his string of lady friends and the intricate schedule he maintains keeping their needs met—or not.

But most of the book is devoted to Jane Doe.  Yes, that’s the real name of the character. Jane soaks up two-thirds of the book, first through a first person narrative and also through her diaries about various anthropology expeditions to Siberia and Africa and her exposure to, basically, black magic.  She’s increasingly a black magic woman and we are along as she (and Gruber) explain it all.

I feel as if Gruber must have sprayed something in my eyes to make me view the world differently—because there is far more back story here than I would normally tolerate, let alone enjoy.

I think the key is that Gruber doesn’t treat the back story as anything less than integral to the main plot. He pumps up the story of Jane Doe and her journeys—primarily through edgy anthropology (yes, there is such a thing) and African witchcraft—with ample detail.  I don’t know if Gruber is capable of giving anything short shrift. Be prepared to learn something, unless you are already familiar with this whole realm.

Caution: the ending borders on horror.  I don’t know where the line is, exactly, but it gets pretty grisly. The ending gave me pause.  It got more than a bit dark. I covered my eyes and kept on reading.  Even though some of the tough images are embedded in visions and dreams, that doesn’t make them any less challenging to digest, does it?

Worth reading? Yes. Put your conventions aside and be prepared.  This is a genre-bender, that’s for sure.  Hard to resist.

(Note—there is a glossary in the back.  Wish I had known that when I started.  Alujonnu is an evil spirit; ama is head; dulfna is aura of witchcraft, ilegbo is to enter trance and a zandoul is a container for magical objects…you get the idea. There are few dozen terms. Doesn’t hurt to bone up.)


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