Paul Di Filippo Reviews The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez
The Spear Cuts Through Water, Simon Jimenez (Del Rey 978-0593156599, hardcover, 544pp, $28.99) August 2022.
There are some works of SF which are so unique that they don’t really inspire any scions, homages or imitations. The Stars My Destination is one such. Tau Zero is another. And Lord of Light is a third. It’s not that another author could not take the work of Bester, Anderson, or Zelazny and construct something along the same lines. It’s that these books are so perfect and definitive and somewhat out-of-left-field that the task of rebooting them along slightly altered lines does not seem worth the candle. This is not to say that the massive fallout from such nonpareils does not penetrate the field. Obviously, Bester has left his mark among the cyberpunks for one. Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds probably have Poul Anderson at the back of the minds all the time. As for Zelazny—well, his blend of myth, SF, and hipster-noir naturalism permeates the urban fantasy field. Nonetheless, there’s never been a novel that conjures up precisely the same blend and affect as Lord of Light. That is, until The Spear Cuts Through Water, the sophomore book from Simon Jimenez, who delivered one of the most elegant, inventive and poignant debuts in recent years, the postmodern space opera The Vanished Birds.
Now, at the outset I do not want to overstate any resemblances between Spear and Zelazny. Jimenez has herewith delivered something utterly individual and idiosyncratic, as wildly visionary as anything by Tom Toner or Josiah Bancroft. The underlying scenarios are vastly different; there is no technology per se, just magic; and any kind of anomalous twentieth- or twenty-first century verbiage and attitudes is mostly missing. So why, with all these disparities, do I bother to compare the two? It’s because Spear features the same kind of larger-than-life demigods (and wonderfully limned minor characters) brawling across a vivid landscape with a kind of devil-may-care panache and brio that we find in Lord of Light. Also, Jimenez’s prose evokes Zelazny’s patented blend of poetry and hard-edged tactility and visualness.
Let’s dive into the nature and substance of Spear.
We start with what appears to be a simple frame tale, but will turn out to be a parallel narrative whose course will intersect directly with the main story at one crucial point, in a kind of striking Heinleinian chrono-paradox. A young person is hearing accounts—myths—of the ancient past from a trusted and beloved elder. This auditor lives in a semi-modern world of cars and telephones and cities, a world at war. Eventually, this youth is given access to a kind of dream-theater in the Inverted World, where the immemorial saga comes to life, like a play.
The saga tells the last days of an empire ruled from the Moon Throne. On the throne sits an old emperor who plans to retire, leaving the state to his three sons, the Terrors (aptly named, as we shall see). The source of all their royal power lies in a hidden basement: in that dungeon is held captive the original Moon Empress, mother to the Terrors, who fell from the sky millennia ago (a little bit of Zelazny flavor here; was she a space traveler, or an actual goddess?). Secured with bonds, she is guarded 24/7/365, on rotation, by a soldier of the royal lineage, nominated for the honor. Currently serving that duty is Jun, one of our heroes.
What the Emperor and the Terrors do not realize is that the Empress has subverted Jun and convinced him to help her escape. She does so in a gory explosion of retribution. (Jimenez’s Grand Guignol stylings are evident from the beginning.) Now Jun and his uncanny patron (who resembles a shriveled old mummy, despite being alive) are fugitives on the road, heading toward a coastal city where the Empress can consecrate a long-delayed ritual.
We next encounter Keema, who is a simple, ultra-competent soldier (albeit lacking his left arm) who is serving at the Tiger Gate fortress under a woman named Araya. When one of the Terrors arrives at Tiger Gate with his army, chasing his fleeing mother, Araya defies him, thus triggering her certain doom. But before she perishes in battle, she entrusts a mysterious spear to Keema, bidding him to deliver it to someone named Shan, in the same seaside town where Jun is heading.
Needless to say, Jun and Keema end up reluctantly joining forces, each one stubborn, suspicious, and bold, convinced that their own mission is paramount. But they will soon discover that only by yoking their efforts and regarding each goal as equal will they have any chance of success.
What ensues after their union is a wild chase and odyssey (compressed into five days) which you must read to believe. The range of dangers and lessons the pair encounter, and the miracles and wonders and hideous spectacles they must face are unbelievable. I could mention a huge battle involving a giant bear conducted across a flotilla of boats, and the presence of a species of sentient tortoises who function as ansible devices, and cannibalism and travelling tinkers and a thousand other marvels, and still not convey the essence and richness of the novel. And remember the frame tale, which weaves in and out as well.
Jimenez has some neat narrative tricks as well. He uses parts of sentences almost as chapter headings which flow into the body of the text. He introduces italicized passages which convey the thoughtstreams of the major characters as well as random ancillary folks. He inserts stories within stories and doles out the histories of his heroes in inventive ways. And the sheer bravura gusto of his prose is contagious.
The two of them collided in the center of the room and the ceiling was blown away by the force of their impact, the top of the cruise sheared off its hinges, the wooden beams and the finery and the paneling all flying up into the air of the Bowl, letting in the burnt evening sky. In the midst of this explosion of energy my two sons were reaching for each other with hands gripping the air in eager desire to strangle the other; the closer each of them got the more powerful the surges released. The boat cracked down the middle like a man breaking open a tajeline.
Jun had slid back into Luubu’s throne of pillows while I held my ground. Large waves of water rolled out from the boat and throughout the Bowl. Apartment barges rose higher than they were constructed to handle. The prison fleet smeared against the wall of the crater. A poorly made textile ship splintered apart and released into the heaving wind thousands of streams of vividly colored fabrics, along with the people who helped make them. A small girl flew briefly into the sky, her neck snapped, her eyes dead.
Certainly more central even than the quest itself is the exfoliating relationship of Jun and Keema. Rivals and enemies at first, they undergo in five days a metamorphosis that renders them archetypes who will live on in legend for centuries, in the life of that frame tale auditor and others.
When Zelazny hit the scene 60 years ago—and when A.A. Attanasio debuted with his Radix, some 40 years ago—it was a sensation of a rich and sophisticated voice emerging to transform the genre. Simon Jimenez provides that same sensation, proving that the genre can sustain endless revolutions in its spiral upwards to its Platonic form.
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