The Spear Cuts through Water by Simon Jimenez
Simon Jiminez’s The Spear Cuts through Water (2022) is one of the most vibrantly original novels I’ve read in some time, an enthralling work of creativity that even as it makes use of some familiar tropes arrives absolutely as its own unique self: richly mythic and startlingly inventive. It will absolutely land on my Best of 2022 list, even it may not be for everyone (though everyone should attempt it).
At its core, The Spear Cuts through Water is a simple quest story told unsimply. Ages ago the Moon Goddess fell from the sky and eventually became captive in the deep dungeons of the Empire. The current Emperor, aged and fearing death, is about to embark on a grand procession, but when the Goddess escapes two young men — Jun and Keema — foes at first and then allies, must escort her through a series of dangers to the coast to perform a final ritual.
That, as noted, is the “simple” part. Plot complications include the Terrors — the power-imbued sons of the Emperor, multiple gods, Jun’s past, a communications system involving sentient tortoises (one of whom, rebellious and “defective”, journeys for a while with Juna and Keema), a mysterious bird, cannibalistic rites, the best scene involving a bear not named Baloo, a labyrinth, and more. Gods and demi-gods wield great power in overt, often impulsive fashion, making the story mythic in the truest sense of the word. The all-in/everything-goes nature of the plot is complemented by Jiminez’s luxuriously boisterous prose, which sweeps the reader along even as it shifts smoothly and easily between lyricism and taste-the-blood-in-your-mouth graphic detail.
But the true virtuoso aspect of the novel is the way it is structured and told, beginning with what seems like a basic frame story — a modern-day you being told ancient tales by “your lola” — with the usual frame tale echoes, such as a current war which mirrors the violence/rebellion in the old stories. But it soon becomes apparent this is no mere frame, as the “you” story and the Jun/Keema story intersect at one vital, world-shifting moment.
How and where that happens is another of those wonderous invention that pepper this novel — the Inverted Theatre, which originated when, “The Moon, when it wished to visit the Water, would cast its reflection into the Water’s surface, and in the inverted world … they built the theater.” And now mortals can end up there “Through dreams . . . A deep sleep, in waters deeper than your dreaming spirit has ever swum before.” This is where the “you” of the frame arrives, “a towering pagoda on a still lake at night … [with] a river of other dreaming shades, who pass through you like gusts of wind.” And it is here that the “you”, and the reader, (though that separation is less clear-cut than it seems on paper) see the story enacted on stage, danced and narrated.
That main narration, meanwhile, which moves back and forth between first, second, and third person, is frequently interrupted by a multitude of other voices, only briefly and set off by their few lines being italicized, a Greek chorus of sorts that momentarily shines the spotlight of narration on the lives and inner thoughts of those side characters often ignored: the faceless guards killed in an attack, a throng of people the main character moves amongst. Early on, these lines may jar the reader, but one quickly becomes acclimated to them, and they were one of my favorite stylistic moves, reminding me a bit of something similar Guy Gavriel Kay does in his novels where he will break out of the main thread to follow a “minor” character’s life beyond the bounds of the novel’s particular focus, though Jiminez’s expanded voices are both far more frequent and shorter. In both authors’ hands, these sort of dips out of the main story lend a greater poignancy to many a scene, and also make it far less easy for readers to gloss over violence and grief (though not all such moments deal with these).
In this and so many ways, The Spear Cuts through Water is a multi-layered work, with voices that ripple outward from the stone’s throw of the “heroes” own narrative, stories within stories, genres on top of genres (as we’re reminded several times, this is at its heart a love story), bodies within bodies and minds within minds, the blurring between reader and character, the ways in which Jun and Keema are characters within a story within this story even as they try to write their own stories of themselves (which may mean rewriting the past ones). One could read The Spear Cuts through Water as just rollicking, over-the-top-crazy-inventive-fun, though my guess is those looking for that sort of story and only that sort of story might find the more stylized turns off-putting and also may find the book overly long. But readers who enjoy the kind of playing with form and structure and storytelling, or who at least don’t mind it alongside a story that is as fun as it is virtuosic, will find The Spear Cuts through Water richly rewarding.
Ordered! Any five-star from you is a must-read for me.
I’ll be curious what you think!