Impressed as I was by Simon Jimenez‘ beautiful and moving first novel, The Vanished Birds, I have to say I’m just staggered by his second, The Spear Cuts Through Water. Using the second person, the narrator lures “you” with intensely lyrical but dramatically apt prose into a world between worlds. One of several story tellers within the story, “your lola”, an often short tempered elder talking to a young man of a recent era, envelopes her listener in a cloud of smoke, as she urges him to “let the dreaming body go.” He does so and steps out of a cloud into the world of the Inverted Theater.
This is a timeless nether world where the dreaming shades of people from many times and places mingle as the story comes to life on the stage. An attendant “unfurls the parchment of your people’s history” and locates him in an age of trains and steamships, where there is a war, so it is also a time of posters and propaganda. The listener does not understand why he has been called here but focuses on a spear he finds in his hands, an intricately carved heirloom that no one in his family was allowed to touch. This spear is a focus of the story he is about to hear, one that places him in a long lineage that slowly reveals itself in the performance of the Inverted Theater.
So begins The Spear Cuts Through Water, an epic fantasy of the last days of the Moon Emperor and his sons, the three Terrors, over a period of five days. Events of mythic proportions break through all conventions of place and time as the Moon God, embodied in the withered form of a woman who appears almost dead, empowers two young men to fight on her behalf and ultimately restore her to her lover, the vast Sea. These two are Keema, a one-armed warrior of Daware, who is entrusted with the spear that he must deliver to a soldier named Shan, and Jun, one of the sons of the First Terror, who betrays his imperial family and all its cruelties to escort the Moon God on her journey to fulfill her destiny.
The relationship between Jun and Keema evolves from distrust and constant fighting to a central love story of the novel. There is an electricity between them that makes their every contact intense, reminding me of the powerful love scenes in Tasha Suri’s writing. There is an amazing moment where they can feel one another’s touch even at a great distance. The relationship is all the more fraught because they seem doomed if each follows the different paths they have committed themselves to.
The narrative is evocative, at times incantatory, whether it describes explosive fights and battle scenes, the destruction of cities, the touch of lovers or the revelations of the timeless spirit world. It is interspersed with especially effective comments from characters we hear from only at a crucial moment, often at their deaths. By suddenly switching the point of view for just a moment to that of a participant in a scene, these compelling thoughts add to the immediacy of action and sometimes remind the reader that this is a timeless world where everything is being re-enacted in the Inverted Theater.
Here is a brief example, as the First Terror’s troops, the Red Peacock warriors, are searching a village for signs of dissent, while their Prince is addressing the crowd:
“…the Peacocks slapped open doors and rummaged through dressers and kicked at loose floorboards, search for evidence of dissent. Chickens were chased out of coops. Sharp knives taken to grain sacks, to linen sheets. The people listened to the ransacking of their homes but we did not dare turn to look, for we all knew the consequence of turning away from a prince.” (Kindle edition, location 210)
As the two warriors continue on their journey with the ancient empress/god, they have to confront each of the Three Terrors in turn. The second, Luubu, catches up to them on a lake known as the Bowl of Heaven, but the third is perhaps the most terrifying, a shape-shifter who feeds on his human victims. But in the middle of this journey, the Moon God begins to tell about her own past, and it is in this central portion of the novel that the richness of its mythology becomes clear.
She tells an epic origin story as the second creation of the Weaver, “His Pale Eye.” She was present at the beginning of Earth. “I was there when the first of men came crawling from the Water, like babes bare-fleshed and weak, squinting against the light. I was there when they picked up that rock, and struck down their brother in the woods. I was there at the first spilling of blood.” (Kindle edition, location 4277)
The gods of that world were mortal, and she sensed herself getting old, with a pitted and cragged surface. Fearing that another Moon might take her place, she tried to escape death by persuading a human to cut her from “this Tapestry.” It was then she fell to Earth in human form and began her life as the Moon Empress, gifting three sons, now known as the Three Terrors, to the man who had freed her.
The Inverted World and its Theater become more and more compelling as the journey through that place mixing all times and places and generations continues to a powerful climax. Jimenez manages to combine exciting, earth-shaking battles with revelations of a more timeless nature that bring the “you” addressed by the narrator to his own series of revelations, just as the characters in the play enacted in the Inverted Theater achieve their destinies. The spear becomes the strange symbol and tangible link of many generations enduring through endless human destructiveness.
The Spear Cuts Through Water is an amazing achievement that works on many levels. It’s a story that richly repays re-reading to linger over its beautiful details, as one would pause over the tapestry of life that is one of its key metaphors. In a year crowded with remarkable SFF novels, this stands out as one of the best.
I want to thank Del Rey and Net Galley for an advance review copy of The Spear Cuts Through Water as the basis for this review, which reflects solely my own opinions.