The Spear Cuts Through Water
By Simon Jimenez
I received an ARC of The Spear Cuts Through Water from Del Rey in exchange for an honest review.
Simon Jimenez establishes himself as an essential voice in epic fantasy with his sophomore novel (after The Vanished Birds). The Spear Cuts Through Water takes place in a world ruled by a tyrannical emperor and his sons, the Three Terrors, who derive their power from an imprisoned god—until said god manages to escape and flees across the country with the aid of Jun, a son of the First Terror, and a one-armed outcast named Keema. Their journey is nestled within a frame story told from the perspective of a descendant of a minor character, who experiences the tale of Jun and Keema via stage performance in a theater that exists outside of space and time.
It’s…a lot. This whole book is a lot, mostly for the better but perhaps just a bit for the worse. It flits between multiple tenses, and it features first-, second-, and third-person POVs. The structure and formatting are unconventional: there are only seven chapters, and Jimenez liberally utilizes italics, bold fonts, and line breaks to draw your attention down the page, highlighting particular emotional beats and switches in perspective. Confusing? Not in practice. The text is carefully calibrated—Jimenez keeps the reader attentive, but he is not willing to risk them losing the thread of the story. I was landed in an ideal liminal space between comfort and challenge.
There’s a fabulistic quality to The Spear Cuts Through Water. The lyrical prose and meta narrative skew it into the realm of myth; but whereas myth tends to trade in archetypes (not an inherently bad thing, to be clear), Jimenez is aggressively determined to avoid that by offering a dimension of empathy to every character, major or minor, who has the misfortune to step onto the page and into the brutal and bloody world in which this story plays out. Unnamed characters perish left and right, but they are each given a chance to speak in flashes of first-person POVs.
When it comes to character development, the Terrors are a highlight. Although they live up to their collective name and cross the line into comic sadism, they are also wildly different from one another, and they each have rich backstories which are unveiled over the course of the book, looping back and layering over what came before. Every revelation locks in with a satisfying click. I desperately wanted to read more about these delightfully delicious villains. The main characters, in contrast, are curiously underdeveloped, particularly in relation to one another. I wanted to know more about Jun and Keema too, but less because I found them interesting and more because they weren’t given enough pagetime or personality for me to understand them.
If I were to level a core criticism at The Spear Cuts Through Water, it’s that there’s too much story packed into too few pages. It’s a better problem than the inverse, sure (and probably less common than not enough story stretched out over too many pages), but I still have to admit that I found myself craving several hundred more pages so I could truly get to know the world and the characters. Instead, the breakneck pace left me with little room to breathe, and although I was swept away by the thrills and soaring ambition of the story, I was never able to establish an emotional connection. The Spear Cuts Through Water promises warmth, but it doesn’t deliver.
I ultimately feel quite conflicted about Jimenez’s latest. It’s a book that I admire more than I actually love, but that admiration is fierce. I want more fantasy like this—sensitive, stylistically fresh, grand and glorious in both the sprawling scope of its cosmology and metaphysics and the intense intimacy of its relationships. Although I wanted more emotional engagement from The Spear Cuts Through Water, the raw storytelling prowess on display here has earned Jimenez his rightful place on my list of writers who I will always read without question or hesitation.
Review by Erin Larson