The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez

I was a great booster of Jimenez's 2020 debut The Vanished Birds, which was nominated for the Clarke award and earned its author an Astounding nomination, but which still, it seems to me, hasn't been recognized as fully as it deserves. I appreciated the way it blended literary techniques and extremely nerdy SFnal concepts (who else, in 2020, was calling back to The Stars My Destination?), and the way it poked holes in some of this moment's most popular genre tropes, such the found family on a space freighter.

Jimenez's follow-up, The Spear Cuts Through Water, was advertised as an epic fantasy, so one might expect a similar blend of literary and genre, a similar reexamining of beloved tropes. Instead, the novel feels like a tremendous leap forward in complexity and ambition. There are some antecedents one can attach to it: the clotted, heady prose is reminiscent of what Marlon James has been doing in his Dark Star trilogy; the evocation of oral storytelling, with different folktales interpenetrating and eventually tying together into a single whole, is reminiscent of Catherynne Valente's duology The Orphan's Tales; the framing story in which a grandparent tells a child a foundational tale from the Old Country will no doubt remind many readers of The Princess Bride; and the blurring (and eventual shattering) of the divide between tale and listener recalls The Neverending Story.

For the most part, however, The Spear Cuts Through Water feels entirely like its own thing, a novel that leaves the reader marveling not only at what it has done, but at how it has achieved it. It's a tough novel to write about—I worry that in describing how it achieves its effect, I will make it sound dry and mechanical, when really it's anything but—but few novels I've read in the last year have left me feeling so astounded and excited.

Plot-wise, the novel is simple, almost to the point of childishness. There is a magical land, ruled over by an evil emperor possessed of incredible powers. There are his three sons and enforcers, less powerful but more accessible (and thus more terrifying) to the populace and the main characters. There is a last hope—the empress, who is also the moon, who, if she can escape her centuries-long imprisonment and bestow her powers on someone worthy, can break the power of the throne and end this seemingly endless dynasty. And there are our heroes, two young men: Jun, the emperor's grandson who is trying to expiate a lifetime of cruelty and oppression, and Keema, the last survivor of a warrior tribe. Thrown together by circumstances, they find themselves joining forces to help bring the empress to her destination. Along the way, their initial hostility gives way to grudging respect, friendship, and eventually love.

In the background, one can perceive hints of greater social and political complexity. In building this world, Jimenez repeatedly interjects with details that reveal how much of its unfairness is rooted not in dark magic but in ordinary class oppression and economic exploitation. A particularly evocative image is the system of gates that controls movement through the land, overseen by a network of telepathic turtles who are in instant, total communication with one another, placing citizens' freedom at the mercy of everyone from the emperor down to a bored, malicious border guard. As Keema and Jun travel, they learn about various planned insurrections against the throne, and while some of these emerge from among the people, the one that is most likely to succeed is backed by the land's wealthy, non-magical families, who resent the limits the emperor has placed on their already-immense power. When Keema expresses disappointment that the empress's plan is to ally with this second group, Jun merely shrugs and explains that "We want to win."

As the adage goes, however, what's important in a work of fiction is often not what it's about, but how. Neither the simplicity of The Spear Cuts Through Water's main story, nor the complexity that is revealed in its background, are the core conceit of the novel. That is the Inverted Theater, the place where the unnamed You to which the novel's narrative addresses itself is watching, in their dreams, a theatrical performance of the novel's story. This You, however, is not merely a reader stand-in, a passive, undifferentiated receptacle for story. As the play progresses, they realize that they already know this tale. It was told to them by their lola as one of the core myths of the country their family emigrated from generations ago.

The novel's fantastical story is interspersed with more mundane details of the diasporic life of You's family, who live in a modern world that does not—despite the use of the Tagalog word "lola"—appear to be our world. The novel's tale is, therefore, told in different ways and in different times. Sometimes it is told in the Inverted Theater by a being known only as "this moonlit body", who describes the story's events in a tight but largely uninflected third person.
The villagers put away their scythes and turned over the feed buckets as the pebbles danced and the terra-cotta eaves trembled. The children held close as the horses crested the nearby rise, two score in number, their riders garbed in red; a gash on the noon horizon. Warriors vicious and without mercy, their faces tattooed with their namesake, their sharp cheeks and hungry eyes framed by red beak and feather; a sight feared by any wise traveler, by anyone who heard the stories, for of the many brigades and bands and gangs that haunted the valleys in those days, it was the Red Peacocks who were deadliest, led as they were by one of the princes of the Throne, a man who had well earned his title of the First Terror.
Other times it is related by lola at different point throughout You's childhood, while in the background a war brews, the family's patriarch grows more militaristic, and You's brothers plot their escape from conscription.
Your lola made a cat's cradle out of red thread. "From peak to peak, the pagodas of the palace stood on the tips of the Westward Mountains," she said. Her fingers shut and then opened again, the pattern of the thread rearranged. "A dozen bridges of finely hewn stone spanned these peaks, connecting these pagodas in a marvelous web. Bridges that turned on giant axes, like the hands of a clock. By the emperor's whim, and the power of his god gifts, the bridges moved, and the layout of the palace would change." Her fingers kept closing and reopening, the pattern of the thread born anew, the connections shifting.
At points other members of the family, such as You's unhappy, disciplinarian father, or the great-grandfather who was the architect of their move to their current home, take over storytelling duty. In their hands, the tale changes tone and focus, emphasizing military might and tactics. In one scene, after lola's death and the father's abandonment, the narrative duty falls to You, who tries to distract a younger sibling from their straitened circumstances by telling part of the story as a comedy.

The novel is keenly aware of how myth and history can be repurposed to suit present needs and mores. When Keema and Jun's attraction begins making itself apparent, lola explains that such tendencies were understood and accepted in the past in which the story takes place. In the war-torn present in which You is hearing the story, however, a more rigid gender binary holds sway. When storytelling duties are taken over by You's father, he insists that the story is a tale about "camaraderie", not love.

Nevertheless, it would be inaccurate to describe The Spear Cuts Through Water as "a story about stories" (a description that, I confess, tends to make me sigh when I hear it applied to a work). The point here isn't the malleability of myth and the way it can be deployed to different aims, but the way that a teller changes a story through the act of telling it. It's a story about performance, and what the novel is trying to evoke in the reader is the feeling of being in the audience. Part of a crowd but fundamentally alone, witnessing the same thing as everyone else, but bringing to it your own history, and your own familiarity with the tale.

For all that Jimenez breathes life and specificity into the framing story—we learn a lot about You's life and their family, following them over decades during which the war and tensions within the family take their toll—there is never a sense that their story is the point, or that we are meant to be interested in how their life will turn out (which indeed we never discover). Perhaps the most concrete illustration of this is the fact that You is not alone in the Inverted Theater, and that other audience members are from different times and places, dreaming about the tale from a war zone or a post-apocalyptic wasteland. There is even an intermission, in which audience members mingle and trade tales of their lives. All of them, Jimenez seems to be saying, are bringing their own history to the tale, and if we were seeing the performance from their perspective—if they were our You—we would be reading a very different novel.

No device better illustrates The Spear Cuts Through Water's evocation of the theatrical than the way its narrative voice frequently shifts into the first person, flitting into the point of view of a minor character for a sentence or two, illustrating their own take on the situation. This can mean a reversal of the point of view,
Those who traveled the unpaved Road Below did so with the awareness that this trip might be their last. We traveled with twice the water we thought we needed. We never traveled alone. And we never traveled by night.
or a sudden cutaway to reveal how a certain luxury was made and what toll its production took on the workers who produced it,
The walls and floor were lush with drapery woven by the textile fleet, the rug beneath his sandaled feet patterned with a complex network of curling vines and jewels. In the tilting ships that housed his looms, we wove these masterworks for our Lord Induun. The fabric stained with out salted sweat and the blood from our broken fingernails.
or a trip through the minds of the "little people" who make up a crowd.
A braying mule of a checkpoint guard laughed in a woman's face as he told her the seal on her manifest was outdated, that they used a new seal now, and that she would have to come back with the proper ornamentation. A fight almost broke out between two men standing in line, ostensibly over a shove, but it could've been anything—the trading of blows prevented only when a third traveler stood between them and talked them down. We all wanted to get through. No need to make it harder for one another. A chorus of babies howled into the humid air, sucking dryly on the breasts of mothers who had little left to give. Water rations were shared between those who had enough to spare and those whose canteens ran empty as the sentries flipped through documents in an unhurried manner. No need to be proud; we were all thirsty in this heat.
The effect is like being addressed by an actor on stage, a greek chorus or an ensemble member who suddenly takes center stage. But as the story progresses, the line between who is spoken about, and who gets to address the audience as "I" becomes blurred. A long middle segment is told from the point of view of the empress, who explains her history while also conveying the impression that to her, she is the only real person in this story. Later, when Jun and Keema are granted powers by the empress, their thoughts become clear to us. Even though they were already our main characters, we suddenly have more insight into their minds. They speak to us (to You) directly.

This sets up a scene late in the novel in which Keema and Jun appear in the Inverted Theater (but were they not already on stage?) and address the audience. Suddenly, there is a conversation between heroes, narrator, and audience over how the story should end. Suddenly, the characters are given a choice—they can play their preordained role in the story, or run away from it. But are they making a choice, or is this simply another part of the tale? The fact that You has a role to play in this chapter, that they become a part of the story, could be taken as evidence going either way.

By the time the story reaches its intricate conclusion, it's clear that what we are witnessing is not merely a performance, but a dance. Keema and Jun learning to work together is important because it's how they save the land, but also because it is how they become attuned to one another, to the "Rhythm" that governs their lives and the tale they are moving through. They win by moving together, producing the crescendo of their performance, delivering to the audience—to You, to the other people in the Inverted Theater, and to the readers—their story's catharsis. The actual details of the ending matter less than the way it is brought together. Which perhaps explains why The Spear Cuts Through Water is a difficult novel to write about—it is literally talking about dance—but I hope that I've said enough here to entice more readers into discovering it.


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