“You will not know the Inverted Theater has called for you until you are already there,” she said as she let the paper burn, and the years burn with it. “It is a place you cannot plan for.” The Shutters trembled against the coastal breeze. “And when you arrive, dream-tripped and unexpectedly, in that amphitheater, the best thing you can do is sit, and watch, and listen, for you are not there by accident.”
It’s always delightful when a story uses the strengths of its medium to really knock it out of the park: when a creator uses the conventions of their chosen form to really draw you into a world, to underscore the message of a story, to evoke sensations and emotions beyond those we’d usually associate with the combination of whatever sight, sound, and touch we might be using to transmit that story into our brains. There’s something deeply satisfying about emerging from a book, or a movie, or an audio drama, or a video game, and saying, “Well, that wasn’t going to be possible in any other form.”
The Spear Cuts Through Water is not this book. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a high-quality example of novel-length prose storytelling: quite the opposite. But The Spear Cuts Through Water isn’t just telling its story in novel form, as you’d expect from something with words and chapters and page numbers. Instead, this is a book recounting a theatre production, as experienced by a specific watcher. The theatre is dreamlike; the production runs through the watcher’s life; the play only sometimes makes itself known as a tangible physical space. But in writing a novel about a theatrical production, which tells a myth of deep significance to the land it is based in, Simon Jimenez opens up a whole new toybox of narrative conventions to deploy.
As well as some seriously good prose, The Spear Cuts Through Water has the literary equivalent of stage directions. It has a literal chorus made up of minor players in the story. It even has audience participation woven into its climactic events. And, through it all, we feel the presence of the watcher and are witness to his feelings about how this story unfolds. After all, this isn’t just any story to him: it’s history from the country of which he is a diaspora member. The novel’s titular spear—the spear which has sat as a family heirloom in the watcher’s house, and for which he once got into trouble for playing, but which he hasn’t seen in years—is there with him, in the audience, at the production’s start. And his memories of being told these myths before, by his “lola” (grandmother) before her death, are what guide us into the opening of the production, along with an assertion that seems out of place among its introduction of royal tyrants and Terrors and a trapped but dangerous god: this is going to be “a love story to its blade-dented bone.”
The actual story inside all of this framing is a quest, set in motion by the death of the despotic Moon Emperor and constructed around his intended five-day voyage to the sea, which he had been told would allow him to conquer death. Instead, that journey is undertaken by two young men, escorting the not-quite-dead form of the Moon Throne’s empress: who also happens to be the actual Moon, now escaped from centuries of imperial captivity. The first of these young men, Jun, the favoured son of the First Terror—one of the triplet princes of the Moon Throne and its presumed heir—has just undertaken six months of solitary guard duty outside the Moon’s prison and come away with a profound shift in loyalty away from his father. The second is Keema of the Daware Tribe, whose low-class outsider status and arm amputation is stigmatised by his fellow soldiers. When the fort at which Keema has been stationed is destroyed in the events surrounding the Moon’s escape, he is tasked by its commander with a mission to deliver a very specific spear to a relative of hers on the coast. Jun’s carriage—passing through the fort as it carries the Moon away from the imperial capital and its ruling dynasty—initially provides Keema’s only means of getting away on that journey. Keema and Jun start out as reluctant allies, then, but their relationship quickly deepens as they become invested in their quest and develop an attraction to each other. Jimenez portrays the growing complexity of feeling between these two militaristic young men through the rhythm of regular sparring matches, having them blow off tension and make physical connection through violence because “it was the easiest language they spoke.” It’s not until much later that the two find less violent ways of getting through to each other (this is a love story, after all); through most of the story, it’s their sparring, and the slow revealing of secrets between the two of them, which lets us see their depth of feeling, even through the relatively distanced prose.
That the prose feels distant seems to be a function both of the mythical elements of the story and the fact it is told from an omniscient view: the action is a theatre production, after all, and even the most minimalist productions (which this is not) require the audience to be watching from outside the actors’ minds. Omniscient narrators feel rather out of fashion in modern literature, to the extent where terms like “head hopping” are staples of writer no-no lists, used in disparaging critiques to call the author’s skill into question. But the omniscience of The Spear Cuts Through Water feels so fundamental to the book, and its theatrical trappings, that it’s very hard to imagine what this story would look like if it wasn’t used here. It’s true that omniscient narrative, especially when it doesn’t “zoom in” to specific characters’ thoughts and motivations, can lose the ability to represent the inner lives of characters, robbing a novel of a particular strength of prose fiction. To leaven this problem, Jimenez gives The Spear Cuts Through Water its own version of a Greek Chorus, adding another theatrical trick to his novel, which provides a whole plethora of voices space to comment on the action as it unfolds. (Yes, strictly speaking a chorus is multiple people speaking with one voice, but I’m stretching the definition to include what happens in this book, because it fits.) These choral comments are offered as italicised, first-person interjections into the flow of the text, and they feature everyone from main characters, to “bit-part” innkeepers and soldiers, to corpses and the personified embodiments of trees. Some of these interjections are paragraphs on their own, some mere fragments which shift the sentences in which they occur from first person to third person and back again:
As the bridges rumbled back into place, the dead man was dragged by his feet through the open door, my body thrown over the bridge railing into the nameless chasm, without marker or prayer, while the Terror made his way across the span to the apartments without even waiting for the bridge to finish its groaning rotation.
These chorus voices transform the story of The Spear Cuts Through Water from a myth in which only the powerful and chosen are represented, to one in which almost everyone affected by the story’s events gets a voice. It also humanises the story’s high body count: for example, the first significant aside comes from a palace worker who is arbitrarily executed after the Emperor’s pet bird is set free. This vanished bird sets a number of significant plot elements in motion, and the scene also provides an early demonstration of the Moon Throne’s despotic, capricious regime and its disregard for human life; but in the process, the elderly worker is also given space to reflect on his service to the throne, his relationship with the Terror, and his feelings as he is falsely accused and watches his colleagues lie to denounce him, either out of fear for their own safety or simply because this is how things are done. The death of the palace worker, who is dead and never seen again by page twenty-three of this five-hundred-page book, signals the important role that the voiceless and victimised are going to be given throughout this myth. The same voice is extended to antagonistic characters, too, like Jun’s brothers, whose collective asides turn them from relentless, inhuman killers to characters whose motivation to please their father is understandable, even as it is applied to monstrous and utterly unsympathetic ends. The italicised chorus voice is also used in the first half of the book to provide the thoughts of the Moon god, whose fragile physical state means that she is unable to influence events directly for much of the narrative. If this feels like too small a role for the god around whom the entire story revolves, don’t worry: her voice takes centre stage during the novel’s pivotal midpoint, and her blunt narration and irreverence towards the story’s royals (who are, after all, her children) provide a note of dark levity to some of the narrative’s most horrifying events.
While The Spear Cuts Through Water doesn’t drag, this complex combination of storytelling elements means that the five days which the myth recounts and around which the novel is structured certainly don’t fly by either. Stylistically, Jimenez keeps the story moving by combining regular prose with short, emphasised sentences every page or so. These highlight a piece of the action or a change of scene, and serve alongside time-based act and chapter headings (acts are days, chapters times of day) to break up the action within the main timeline. The primary story is interspersed with scenes from the watcher’s life as he observes the performance, and these show time passing in a way that is much harder to pin down.
Though it’s not signposted in the chapter divisions, theatrical conceits extend to giving The Spear Cuts Through Water a two act structure, and by the time the metaphorical curtain falls on the first act, the story has so thoroughly upended the premise of its own quest—and driven its body count so high—that I was ready for an actual “intermission” (one which involved less overpriced wine and ice cream, and more holding a pillow and crying, than a real-life theatre trip). This book does not pull its punches, nor does it offer neat solutions to its moral questions, and that makes it an intensely heavy read at times. The reward for that heaviness, however, is a richly rewarding story, packed full of worldbuilding intricacies which tie directly into the plot in unexpected ways.
The myth-within-a-story aspect makes for particularly intriguing worldbuilding. On one hand, we have the apparent mundanity of the watcher’s daily experience, full of thoughts about his family and their role in his life, about living as an immigrant within a context of conflict and amid nationalist propaganda which makes his relationship to his homeland more complicated. On the other, we experience his homeland through the myth. The play is full of magical happenings and geographical implausibilities that are hard to reconcile as historical fact even as the story insists that this is the land of the watcher’s family, that their culture has lived on in his father and other family members, that the spear he grew up with is the very same spear entrusted to Keema. And yet, although we know that we are observing a theatre production that takes place in the watcher’s dreams, it is the watcher’s story that feels dreamlike and disjointed, its timelines and events unbound from logic—and the myth that sets out clear rules and divisions for its world while proceeding along a ritualistic five-day timeline. In the story’s second act, that rigidity becomes a sense of inescapable destiny for our two protagonists ... but this is a love story, and Jimenez does not renege on that promise, adding a final subversive twist which I found immensely satisfying.
In short, The Spear Cuts Through Water is something special. It’s an intricate, powerful myth which gives voices to characters in the margins, no matter how brief their appearance may be. It’s an epic quest starring two conflicted young men and a rather complicated god, opposed by a truly terrifying group of villains. It’s a prose experiment that throws several “writing rules” out of the window and creates successful new structures from the conventions of another medium entirely. Like all artistic experiments, this one won’t speak to everyone. But it’s the kind of book that I hope we’re still speaking about—and from which future writers are drawing inspiration—for decades to come.