REVIEW: The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez
Dear Simon Jimenez,
I’ve been waiting with bated breath for the release of The Spear Cuts Through Water, your follow up and a novel in the fantasy genre, and was thrilled when I obtained a copy.
The Spear Cuts Through Water is an ambitious novel. It balances unusual scope with unusual intimacy, not an easy thing to do. Its POV structure and formatting are experimental, and it shifts between three fantastical settings, two of them different lands separated not only by a large body of water but also by eras in time, as well as a third place/time that is in fact timeless and that connects the other two.
This is hard book to describe, and the best I can do is to start by mentioning some of the unconventional style choices before getting into the characters, settings, and plot summary in the reverse order from what I usually do.
Even the way the text is laid out is unexpected. There are bolded, italicized and centered titles between some of the scene breaks, and often they are comprised of a phrase or a sentence that begins the next scene or one that ends the previous scene. Once in a while a title doesn’t seem to be part of either, and is (I think) being used as titles typically are. Sometimes the titles are complete sentences but sometimes only a part of a sentence.
More importantly, though, much of the narration is in second person, not first or third. There are also sections where the main narration is interrupted by another character or characters’ POV for a sentence or a few sentences. The interjectors are often unnamed, though I was usually able to figure out who they were from context. Their interruptions (for lack of a better word) frequently shift the narration from second person narration to first person and then back to second person. They usually don’t get a separate paragraph but are offset by within the same paragraph through italicized text.
These insertions are generally the voices and viewpoints of characters who are present on the scene described in the surrounding text when that part of the story takes place. To make things even more confusing, sometimes they are dead, but speaking about the unfolding event from wherever they have gone to, and this isn’t usually stated, it’s just evident from the fact that the event of their death happens on the page and they describe it themselves in past tense.
With regard to the second-person narration, the character or characters being addressed as “you” are not identified by name. Indeed, it took me a little while to figure out what “you” meant, whether it was “you the reader,” “you, multiple characters,” general you (“you as in ‘most people as a general rule'”), “you, as in me” (when chatting, people sometimes use “you” in reference to themselves), or “you, a specific individual character other than the narrator.” Sometimes I thought I had it figured out and then something else made me rethink it.
I’m not sure whether my confusion and distraction is a bug or if it’s part of the experience the author wanted readers to have, but it got between me and the story. I finally worked out that most of the time a specific individual character other than the narrator was actually being addressed, but on rare occasion “you” was meant a different way than that.
The person addressed as “you” is an unnamed young man. His family is originally from a place referred to as the Old Country, but they now live in a different land. Most if not of all of his life has been spent in the new country.
A woman described as “your lola” is his grandmother (lola means grandma in the Philippines, and the author is half-Filipino). She is alternately loving and brusque, smokes a lot, and enjoys her telling him stories of the Old Country. When the book begins she has already passed away, but we see her in multiple flashbacks.
“Your father” is the young man’s father, a taciturn, demanding and unhappy man. When tensions first arose between their country and another country, he wanted their country to go to war and eventually he got his heart’s desire.
Our young man has nine brothers. The story begins after they have left to fight in the war but we also see them as children in flashbacks.
A spear hangs in a place of honor on the wall of the family’s living room. The spear is an old one with mysterious markings. The young man doesn’t know much about it and he doesn’t give it a lot of thought, but the spear is important. It’s also the only object that is present in all three settings and narratives and its full significance only becomes evident late in the book.
The young man’s timeframe is probably equivalent to our early- to mid- twentieth century. Radio is a source of news and entertainment shows, but there is no mention of television. The war is a major one and a long one, perhaps analogous to World War I. Perhaps this world is an alternative Earth (it’s not clear), in which case the war might even be one of our world wars. It lasts years and the book begins about a decade or so after it started, I’m guessing. The earliest flashbacks take place perhaps a decade before that.
The young man’s grandmother once described a place called the Inverted Theater to him, a place that only the fortunate visit, and only once and only in a dream. There, these guests of the spirits—or perhaps the gods—witness a performance. When they wake, the visitors don’t remember what was performed.
Early in the book, the young man falls asleep and begins to dream. In the dream, he arrives at the Inverted Theater for a performance alongside unfamiliar people. They are all shades, including him, because everyone is dreaming rather than physically present. He realizes from their clothing that they are from all different periods in time. Unlike the others, the young man has brought a spear with him, though he doesn’t notice that at first. Only after realizing that he has a spear does he understand that it’s the one from home.
The play is performed by an otherworldly beings. The central player and host introduces themselves as “this moonlit body,” but there are also other performers on the stage. The story they enact is the central storyline in the book. The young man is an audience member, the moonlit body the presenter, and they act as a frame for the central story (though there’s a bit more to it than that). The main story, the one performed on the stage, takes place far back in the Old Country’s history. It’s a story of oppression and rebellion, of aloneness, and of a quest.
This story, by virtue of not involving the young man but being told to him, reads like it’s narrated in third person for much of the time. It begins when the Old Country was a land struck by heat and dryness, a land with a moonless sky. A despotic emperor rules the country. The emperor’s three sons, known as the Three Terrors, have magical powers. They are not only the sons of the emperor, but also the sons of the moon, a goddess that the emperor holds captive.
The First Terror is the emperor’s heir, and he and his many sons (known as the Red Peacocks) subjugate the country and its citizens. The Red Peacocks bear peacock tattoos on their faces and are as violent and cruel as their father.
As this ancient story begins, the Terror and his sons are beating and murdering villagers into submission. The emperor is about to undertake a five-day pilgrimage across the country on the way to the ocean he means to cross on his journey to eternal rest. The villagers are to present themselves to the emperor, gift him their finest goods whether or not they can afford to, and humble themselves before him in other ways as well. It is the First Terror’s job to ensure that.
The First Terror spares a child who hid instead of coming out to greet him and his sons because he’s in an indulgent mood. That’s because his favorite son, Jun, the cruelest and most brutal of the Red Peacocks, was assigned by the emperor to a six-month rotation of guarding the door to the room behind which the Empress is imprisoned, and is now about to complete that duty. This post has been known to break lesser men and the Terror is worried about Jun but also looking forward to reuniting with him.
When he returns to his father’s palace, the First Terror discovers that his father’s favorite bird is missing from its cage. This frightens the enfeebled emperor. The bird was in his sleeping chamber, and anyone who entered and released it from its cage could have also assassinated him, so he takes it as a threat. To assuage his father’s fears, the First Terror has an innocent man tried and executed for the crime.
We then meet a few characters stationed at Tiger Gate, a fortress that serves as the city’s eastern checkpoint. Commander Araya, a warmhearted but tough woman given to drinking, is in charge of the fort. She is the First Terror’s sometime lover, but when we meet her she is preparing to serve him poisoned tea. Araya is secretly working with rebels for reasons we aren’t privy to. She knows she will be executed for trying to poison the Terror and that it might not work at all—the Terrors’ magical powers make them very hard to kill.
Also working in the same fortress is Keema, a one-armed young man. Keema has been stigmatized and ostracized for his disability but Araya gave him a steady job when he showed up and asked for one. Araya likes him but Keema is abused by the men and women who work for her and even the children in the fortress camp deride him. When we meet him, we see him cleaning the truly disgusting latrines, a punishment he could have escaped had he been willing to rat out the person who was to blame.
While the Terror is away from the palace, the emperor gives an order to execute Jun, but before his guards can finish the job, they die in an explosion. During Jun’s service at the door of the Empress’s prison, the Empress / moon goddess subverted him by playing on his guilt for all the atrocities he has committed in the past, and now he has freed her.
Jun and his cold, imperious grandmother escape in a rickety wagon. Jun replaces his red peacock mask (many people wear masks in this world, at the emperor’s command) with the mask of one of the dead guards at the scene of the explosion, so his father believes he died. The empress has killed the emperor as well, and the Terror rides to catch her and whoever freed her, both to avenge his son and father and to maintain his own power now that he has inherited the empire. His other sons accompany him.
Jun arrives at Araya’s fortress with the (physically unmoving) goddess hidden in the wagon. Luckily Araya is not only on the side of the rebellion but even willing to help them by keeping the gates behind them closed and allowing them out, though she knows she will pay for that with her life.
At the last minute, just before the wall of the fortress is breached, Jun and the Empress drive away. In preparation for her death, Araya asked Keema to deliver a spear she cherishes to a soldier all the way to the east, near the ocean’s shore, and now Keema, with Arya’s spear in hand, jumps into their wagon. Araya’s last stand buys them a few minutes. After they are out of the gates, the Empress destroys a bridge and strands the Terror and the other Red Peacocks behind. But they are not deterred for long.
Soon, the old wagon breaks down and Jun must get another. The Empress (who communicates only with Jun and only telepathically) suggests that he tell Keema to help them obtain it. Jun intends to ditch Keema afterward—he knows that if he ever takes off his new mask, Keema will identify him as a Red Peacock by his tattoo. He anticipates that Keema will want to kill him for his crimes.
But Keema proves unexpectedly resourceful and ends up becoming a member of their party. So does an ailing telepathic tortoise trapped in the wagon they steal to replace their own. The four of them travel along the route of the emperor’s scheduled pilgrimage over the same five days. The Empress is dying but she wants to gift her body to the rebels on the eastern shore to consume for powers they will use to fight and hopefully kill her sons. Her last wish is to free the country from the royal family’s cruel subjugation. Unfortunately Jun has taken a vow that he’ll never kill another person, complicating things.
Will Jun, Keema, and the Empress succeed in their mission, or will the Terrors win out? Will the tortoise, one of the emperor’s network of tortoises who communicate telepathically and relay messages, betray them or remain loyal? Will Jun allow himself anything good, even knowing that he doesn’t deserve it? Will Keema be able to trust him, and maybe even feel something more? And what is the significance of Araya’s spear?
The writing here is lyrical and the characterization delineated beautifully, as in The Vanished Birds. Jimenez has retained his skill in evoking yearning. The worldbuilding is creative and filled with memorable imagery. I loved the characterization of the people we meet along the way.
When I say I loved it, I don’t mean that the characters were overtly loveable and made so through authorial manipulations. Rather they read as organic and real and were all the more moving for that. The plotting is also good—the characters have a clear mission but what they find during their journey make it feel like more than a simple quest. The pacing is on the slow side, though my confusion slowing my reading down is probably a factor there.
I appreciate books that immerse me in the setting and let me figure it out from context instead of explaining it to me, and this was such a book. In this case, though, my appreciation is tempered by the fact that the immersion came on top of many other things that have to be discerned and gotten used to. If I hadn’t been distracted by all that, I would have enjoyed it more.
That can be said for all aspects of the book, really. Though the plot, characterization and worldbuilding are all strong, the distraction of trying to decipher so much at once made it hard to stay absorbed. I had a strange reading experience: even after I had figured out most of the things that confused me (it probably took at least 30% of the novel to get to that point), I got engaged, but when I picked up the book again the next day, I felt at a remove. Later, I got absorbed again, but after taking a break, I felt detached again. I think it was hard for my writer’s brain to stop analyzing whether these techniques worked and just enjoy the story. Ultimately, the distractions got in the way of my reading pleasure.
I recognize how poetic and creative this book is, but that appreciation isn’t matched by a deep emotional connection as it was when I read The Vanished Birds. My hat is off to the author for trying something so unusual and fresh and to Del Rey for publishing it; I haven’t read anything like it before. Nevertheless, my reading experience felt incomplete. Because some of that is due to the fact that I am a writer and struggled to stop assessing techniques, I’m bumping my grade slightly and giving The Spear Cuts Through Water a C+/B-.