Stories about story-telling itself always risk a kind of self-congratulatory triteness. As lovers of narrative, we’re already aware of the power of story, and hopefully self-aware enough to see how stories change our perception of ourselves, of the world; breathless paeans to the medium itself generally leave me, pardon the pun, uninspired. Tautology bordering on banality, to steal a phrase, and the most interesting exceptions to this problem—reflexive, meta-fictional, self-aware or nested stories—have their own sets of challenges.
Simon Jimenez’s second novel, The Spear Cuts Through Water, is a fascinating experiment in richly representing the experience, not of story-telling, but of story. It’s radically unlike anything else I’ve ever read, which is a bold enough statement to make of any novel, and even more astonishing given that this is technically, perhaps even classically, an epic fantasy. Jimenez’s stylistic choices don’t feel like bits, set-pieces, or interjections to an otherwise standard novel: its very material, at sentence and paragraph and chapter level, is densely, uniquely textured. Polyvocal and thematically intricate, The Spear Cuts Through Water never comes across as preachy or artificial: it has a story and tells it well. It’s just that its approach is so novel, on every page, that it challenges how we think about reading and writing these kinds of stories.
At its core, the novel is a fantasy adventure: a kingdom under the rule of corrupt, magic-wielding tyrants is on the brink of revolution. The ancient moon goddess who gave the emperor his power escapes her prison and, with the aid of her grandson, Jun, and an errant soldier, Keema, rushes to end the empire’s power before she’s caught by her own diabolical children.
The twist is not in that adventure—which is interesting and entertaining in its own right—but in how it’s told, how it’s framed. The story is explicitly being told to “you”, and “you” are a character we slowly learn more about, catching glimpses of a fairly modern story, of family drama and an ordinary life. Writing a significant portion of a fantasy novel in the second person is already something of a trick—and one thinks of N.K. Jemisin’s use of the form in her Broken Earth trilogy—but that’s only one layer here. In addition to hearing this story from your grandmother, you also dream about it, you visit the “Inverted Theater” where the entire story is told through dance, you hear parts of it from ghosts or spirits. Interjections like micro-chapter titles feel like stage directions, or exclamations, or internal monologue. While each section has a traditional viewpoint character, the narrative expands unexpectedly and repeatedly to allow other characters to speak directly, as though a Greek chorus were suddenly shouting their lines. And all of these elements—oral story, dream, dance, interjection—are threaded constantly throughout Jun and Keema’s journey.
It’s less a braided novel and more a woven novel, with each of these different approaches to the story texturing the book on almost every page. Indeed, it might be a mistake to call the fantasy story “the core” of the novel—that lends it a false centrality. Without losing the propulsion of that story—rich world-building, interesting characters, intense action scenes—Jimenez gives its listeners and tellers equal weight. The links between the modern frame story, the mythic fantasy, and the oneiric dance production are never restricted to the symbolic, but are literal, material, despite the way the novel constantly reminds us how multiply-constructed its tale is.
It’s a heady, disruptive, and distinctly theatrical reading experience. And it captures something of the complicated, polyvalent nature of reading (or listening, or watching) itself: the way we are present and not-present in the text, how our physical environment while we read never really goes away, how our minds jump to other memories and connections right alongside the narrative we’re trying to immerse ourselves in. How reflexive storytelling is, how telling and re-telling stories is a huge part of how we construct our identities. A recurring element in the novel is how Jun, Keema, and other characters are attempting to revise, obscure, or restart their own stories, to figure out how to make sense of—and peace with—how their lives compare to the stories they thought they knew. Jimenez’s first book, The Vanished Birds, displayed a keen sense of how the novel can play with time, and that skill is rewardingly developed here: juxtaposing a tightly-choreographed five-day journey with time-lapse glimpses of another life, with time scales that expand to centuries or compress to a split-second observation.
Thematically, one of the most impressive things about The Spear Cuts Through Water is how it uses its unusual form to deal with violence and trauma. Something that often trips me up in genre fiction is how casual these stories can be about death, how little they care about the nameless, faceless extras and mooks hurt or killed by heroes and villains alike. Here, there’s no lack of violence—often stylish, gory, and colorful—but it’s never weightless, and its aftereffects deeply shape the novel’s characters and form. Head-hopping between victor and victim, suddenly diving from surface to psychological depth, and passing the metaphorical microphone to the dying and the dead, Jimenez refuses to dismiss the cost of violence, and in doing so foregrounds an astonishingly human take on well-worn genre tropes.
It’s rare that I encounter a book that’s so hard to make comparisons with—perhaps the intricate construction of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, the wistful mix of epic fantasy and literary play in Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories, or maybe the syncretic, many-voiced energy of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo. The Spear Cuts Through Water is remarkably rich—too full of ideas and themes to capture here. Jimenez’s stylistic daring might put off devotees of more conventional fantasy novels, but this novel is an astonishing feat, one that lovers of sophisticated story won’t want to miss.
The Spear Cuts Through Water
By Simon Jimenez
Del Rey Books
Published August 30, 2022
Appalachian in the big city. Bookseller, specialty coffee pro, SF scholar.