We Are All of Us Entertained: A Review of The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez
Karlo Yeager Rodriguez
The Spear Cuts Through Water, Simon Jimenez. Del Rey, August 2022.
Reading a novel that adopts the structures and cadences of both theater and oral storytelling, with shifting perspectives and voices adding to the whole is the type of challenge proud, one-armed Keema (one of the two heroes of The Spear Cuts Through Water) would accept to prove himself. It was a challenge I was willing to take after reading Simon Jimenez’ debut novel The Vanished Birds, one of the best space operas I’ve read in years. The Spear Cuts Through Water is firmly rooted in epic fantasy, though it approaches the genre’s typical reliance on intricate worldbuilding in a unique way. You—the reader—know the shape of these types of narratives almost as intimately as you—the character in the story—does, having heard these tales of the old country from your lola countless times. There’s a land to be freed from crushing oppression; an evil emperor and his sons to defeat; an imprisoned goddess who needs heroes to help her escape: all part of a well-known story. The details are left dreamily vague because the broad strokes are familiar, a collective memory you recall in sleep, dreaming your way to the otherworldly Inverted Theater.
And it’s within that theater that the “you” within the story see the myth performed as a type of dance. The different layers of narrative and shifting points of view (the novel moves between first, second, and third person) are what make The Spear Cuts Through Water stand apart from more traditional fantasy. As the telling flows between points of view—often digressing to flesh out a secondary or even minor character’s relation to the core story—the reader is encouraged to ask: who is telling this story, and for whom? What role does the audience have—do they stand apart from the narrative or are they integral to it? Can an audience be separate from what’s told?
This experimental approach is bold, but Jimenez’s command of language and structure is such that every shift to another character is clear; every veer towards or away from the central heroes only helps flesh out a secondary or minor character. However, our two heroes stand at the heart of all these interwoven strands. When Keema, the self-styled warrior of the Daware tribe, is first introduced, he is at the bottom—ordered to clean out his barracks’ latrines as punishment. His commander, Uhi Araya, attempts to soften the punishment. Even though he relies on only one arm, the other lost sometime in the past, his pride prevents him from accepting such accommodations. When the garrison is attacked by the First Terror’s forces, that grit is what convinces Araya to trust Keema to deliver her family’s ancestral weapon—the spear giving the novel its name—to the Capital.
In his escape from his besieged garrison, he stumbles across a cart driven by demon-masked Jun. Mistrustful of Keema at first, Jun soon accepts him as an ally on his own quest: to reunite his grandmother, the moon goddess, with her first and greatest love, the far-off ocean. Keema wants to find out if the long-lashed eyes behind Jun’s mask match an equally lovely face, but their burgeoning interest in each other is dampened by Jun’s past. Heartsick and broken by the past slaughter of innocents expected from him as one of the sons of the First Terror, Jun is still haunted by who he was, even though he’s renounced violence and will no longer wield a weapon. Thus, the first tentative steps in the dance between Keema and Jun begin, though Jun demurs often—sometimes due to his obligations, and other times due to his war trauma.
Escaping their pursuers also forces the two heroes to focus more on their quests than their feelings for each other. As they draw closer to the Capital, the forces of the First Terror chase them into a trap set by his brother, the Second Terror. In the ensuing tumult, Keema loses the spear he swore to deliver.
This is where the narrative turns itself inside out, and you, as part of the audience in the Inverted Theater, are called upon to fulfill your role. It’s the same spear you’d glance at while your lola told you stories of the old country, an old weapon hung in a place of honor in the house before sleep brought you to the Inverted Theater. You suddenly realize that same spear is in your hands here in the now-silent theater. The phantom ushers gather around you expectantly; the shadowy audience is waiting. . .
It’s a bold move that should not work, but nevertheless does. Part of it may be that the story as known to the audience, to your fictional siblings, to your lola telling you stories about the old country, has already happened. It’s a known sum, and the you of the story, your lola and granjo, your father and everyone else are the end result—if Keema and Jun didn’t somehow get exactly the help they needed at exactly the right moment, then how could any of you be around to tell stories about their quest? Of course, the simpler, more grounded explanation is this: we as readers and as part of the story have been invited to take part in the telling, to help create the story from the very beginning, and we’ve all become invested in seeing Keema and Jun complete their quests. We expect but also want to help them complete their quests. We want to believe they—and we—can save the world, even if it’s all a story we’ve heard our lola tell us a thousand times.
It’s also why, when the last threads of the narrative are tucked away, with the world saved and the oppressive rule of centuries lifted, we are ready to accept this was always a love story, “down to its blade-dented bone”. When it came to Keema and Jun, it was always true.
Karlo Yeager Rodriguez is originally from Puerto Rico, but now lives in the Baltimore area with his wife and one odd dog. His fiction is found in venues like Pseudopod, Seize the Press Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He is also the host of Podside Picnic, where he and his co-hosts explore the literature of the fantastic. You can find him on Twitter.
This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. ARB’s publishing editor was lightly acquainted with the review author. It was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Jake Casella Brookins. ARB did not arrange a review copy.