Paul Di Filippo criticizes The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez – Locus Online

The spear goes through the waterSimon Jimenez (Del Rey 978-0593156599, hardcover, 544pp, $28.99) August 2022.

There are SF works that are so unique that they don’t really inspire descendants, tributes or imitations. The stars my destination is one. Zero Tau is another. And Lord of Light is a third. It’s not that another author couldn’t take the work of Bester, Anderson or Zelazny and build 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 doesn’t seem worth the effort. That’s not to say the massive fallout from these non-pareils doesn’t permeate the field. Clearly, Bester left his mark among cyberpunks for one. Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds probably have Poul Anderson on their minds all the time. As for Zelazny, well, his mix of myth, SF, and hipster-noir naturalism pervades the realm of urban fantasy. Nevertheless, there has never been a novel that evokes exactly the same mixture and the same effect as Lord of Light. That is, until The spear goes through the waterthe second book by Simon Jimenez, which delivered one of the most elegant, inventive and poignant debuts in recent years, postmodern space opera The missing birds.

Now, initially, I don’t want to exaggerate the similarities between Spear and Zelazny. Jimenez thus delivered something utterly individual and idiosyncratic, as exotically visionary as anything from Tom Toner or Josiah Bancroft. The underlying scenarios are very different; there is no technology per se, just magic; and any sort of anomalous 20th or 21st century verbiage and attitudes are mostly absent. So why, with all these disparities, am I bothering to compare the two? It’s because Spear features the same kind of larger-than-life demigods (and wonderfully polished minor characters) brawling in a living landscape with a kind of insane panache and panache found in lord of light. Furthermore, Jimenez’s prose evokes Zelazny’s proprietary blend of poetry and tactility and hard-edged visuals.

Let’s dive into the nature and substance of Spear.

We begin with what appears to be a simple framework tale, but which will turn out to be a parallel narrative whose course directly intersects with the main story at a crucial point, in a kind of gripping Heinleinian chrono-paradox. A youth hears tales – myths – of the ancient past from a trusted and beloved elder. This listener lives in a semi-modern world of cars, telephones and cities, a world at war. Finally, this youth has access to a kind of dream theater in the Inverted World, where the immemorial saga comes to life, like a play.

The saga chronicles the last days of an empire ruled from the Throne of the Moon. On the throne sits an elderly 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 this dungeon is held captive the Empress of the original Moon, mother of Terrors, who fell from the sky millennia ago (a bit of Zelazny flavor here was she a space traveler, or a true goddess?). Secured by sureties, it is guarded 24/7/365, in turn, by a soldier of the royal line, named in honor. Jun, one of our heroes, currently fulfills this function.

What the Emperor and the Terrors don’t realize is that the Empress has knocked Jun down and convinced him to help her escape. She does so in a bloody outburst of retaliation. (Jimenez’s Grand Guignol styles are evident from the start.) Now Jun and his strange boss (who looks like a shriveled old mummy, though he’s alive) are fugitives on the road, heading for a town coastal where the Empress can devote a long ritual.

We then meet Keema, who is a simple and ultra-skilled soldier (although he doesn’t have his left arm) who serves at 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 challenges him, thus triggering his certain doom. But before she perishes in battle, she entrusts a mysterious spear to Keema, asking him to deliver it to a man named Shan, in the same seaside town Jun is heading to.

Needless to say, Jun and Keema end up reluctantly joining forces, each stubborn, suspicious, and daring, convinced that their own mission is paramount. But they will soon discover that only by working together and treating each goal as equal will they stand a chance of success.

What ensues after their union is a wild chase and odyssey (compressed into five days) that has to be read to be believed. The range of dangers and lessons the couple encounter, as well as the miracles, wonders and hideous sights they have to face are incredible. I could mention a huge battle involving a giant bear being fought through a flotilla of boats, and the presence of a species of sentient turtles that function as ansible devices, and cannibalism and roving tinkerers and a thousand other wonders, and that don’t still not convey the essence and richness of the novel. And remember the story of the frame, which also sneaks in.

Jimenez also has some interesting narrative tricks. It uses parts of sentences almost like chapter headings that blend into the body of the text. It introduces passages in italics that convey the currents of thought of the main characters as well as random supporting people. It inserts stories within stories and distributes the stories of its heroes in an inventive way. And the sheer bravery of his prose is contagious.

The two collided in the center of the room and the ceiling was blown away by the force of their impact, the top of the cruiser shearing off its hinges, the wooden beams as well as the trimmings and paneling flying off in the air of the bowl, letting in the scorched evening sky. In the midst of this burst of energy, my two sons reached out for each other, hands clutching the air, eager to strangle the other; the closer each of them got, the more powerful the surges released. The boat cracked in the middle like a man breaking a tajeline.

Jun had slid onto Luubu’s pillow throne while I held on. Great waves of water poured out of the boat and all over the bowl. Apartment barges have risen higher than they were built to carry. The prison fleet brushed against the crater wall. A poorly made textile ship broke apart and released thousands of streams of brightly colored fabrics, along with the people who helped make them, into the strong wind. A little girl flew briefly through the sky, her neck broken, her eyes dead.

But certainly even more central than the quest itself is Jun and Keema’s exfoliating relationship. Rivals and enemies first, in five days they undergo a metamorphosis that makes them archetypes that will live in legend for centuries, in the life of this storyteller executive and others.

When Zelazny came on the scene sixty years ago – and when AA Attanasio made his debut with his Base, some forty years ago, was the sensation of a rich, sophisticated voice emerging to transform the genre. Simon Jimenez provides that same feel, proving the genre can sustain endless revolutions in its upward spiral to its Platonic form.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over 30 years and has published nearly that many books. He lives in Providence RI, with his partner of even more years, Deborah Newton.

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