I met Jillian in grad school, where her stories in workshop were remarkable for their long, lush, atmospheric sentences. I haven’t seen her in person since then, but we’ve occasionally commiserated online about the trials of young motherhood and reconciling it with writerly ambition. When I congratulated her on her novel and told her how much I was looking forward to reading it, she told me that it was different from the things she’d written back in school. When I finally was able to read her book, though, it felt very similar to what I remembered of her writing from years ago. When I say that I certainly don’t mean that she hasn’t grown and evolved, because I see skill here that seems beyond what I remember her doing 6 years ago, especially in pacing and plotting. What I mean is that I recognized Jillian’s style and sensibility. I promised her I would read not with my mind on evaluating and critiquing, but would simply enjoy getting lost in a story, and I did! Her protagonist Eiren, is princess of a country that has just lost a war, and she’s been separated from her family and taken hostage by the enemy. She finds out that she’s the icon or human incarnation of Theba, the goddess of destruction. As she travels though hostile territory with her former enemies, she learns more about what it means to be an icon. As with all fantasy, the best advice for a reader is, “Just go with it.”
In reading this book I realized that Jillian’s style is one that seems best presented in longer works, and thus she might have been poorly served by the workshop format, where students typically submit a short story or a chapter of a longer work two or three times a term. Because Jillian’s voice is so unique, a reader may need time to get used to it, to learn to read it, to give up the foolish impulse to resist its idiosyncracies and let it build a world and a feeling around her. Without a long text and a long time to devote to reading it, it would be easy for a reader not to realize what a great writer Jillian is. Jillian’s sentences are as luxurious as I remembered, perfect for the detailed descriptions necessary to create a strange new fantasy world.
My favorite passages were the stories-within-a-story told by Eiren and her companions. This structure reminded me of another book that depended heavily on fantasy and story-telling, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, and I loved that book. The fairy tales Eiren tells are strange and surprising, sometimes sweet and sometimes dark. I also enjoyed the hint of romance in The Hidden Icon. Jillian is one of those rare writers whose characters communicate with a brush of hands what people in bodice rippers need pages of purple prose to say. The ending brought the house down, revealing mysteries in Eiren’s world and within her character, and surpassing my expectations. There’s going to be a sequel, and I wish Jillian the best in its creation!