Hello! We’re reading The Butterfly Assassin together and discussing the worldbuilding and writing process, according to the chronology of the book. This readalong started with 17/09, Eraro. Jump to that post to start from the beginning, or join us wherever you like!
On the tenth of October, Isabel and Emma meet Michael at Gauntlet Drive to investigate their best lead regarding the whereabouts of Isabel’s father. On the way there, Emma shows Isabel a mural she painted of her. Gauntlet Drive is, however, a trap, and they’re attacked by masked assailants. Isabel and then Michael act swiftly to fight them off and protect Emma, but Isabel collapses, the poison finally overwhelming her system. They flee to the Sunshine Project, the only place where Isabel might be able to get help, only to find that Ronan Atwood is there, arguing with Daragh – who, it turns out, has known who Isabel was the whole time, and had an agreement with Comma. Helpless, desperate, and backed into a corner, Isabel makes a deal: she’ll give Comma whatever they want, if only they’ll save her.
This chapter is a big moment, and not only because it puts Isabel back into the hands of her guild. The part of this chapter I’m most attached to is Emma’s portrait of Isabel, a version of which has existed since the very first draft. In that version of the book, Emma painted the mural on the wall of Isabel’s hospital room, while Isabel watched:
“You know I have dark hair, right?” she says, when the figure begins to sport a purple mohawk.
“Creative license,” Emma says simply. “Anyway, I think it would look good on you. You’ve got to let me near your hair some time.”
“Not if you’re going to do that to it.”
The mural is recognisably Isabel, when it’s done – the strong, straight eyebrows and defined cheekbones give her face its characteristic shape – but it’s Isabel as she’s never seen herself. She’s wearing a leather jacket and ripped jeans, and it’s not only her hair that’s had a makeover.
“Have you given me piercings?” she asks. “A safety pin is totally impractical as an ear piercing, and I’m pretty sure it’s against the school dress code.”
“Oh, you’d never get through the school gates looking like that,” says Emma with a grin. “But admit it. You look pretty damn cool.”
“You turned me into a punk,” she accuses.
“I know! Isn’t it great?”
But when I shifted things around so that a) Isabel spends a lot less time in the hospital and b) Emma isn’t actually allowed in to visit her, I needed to find somewhere else to put the scene.
So, I moved it here, and at the same time, expanded on the scene so that it explores more of the tensions at work in the story. Emma paints the mural on the wall we saw earlier: one that used to hold an abolitionist mural, which was scoured away by pressure washers. Is that foreshadowing? Maybe.
The sixth draft, then, introduced the MATTER OF ART AND DEATH t-shirt (which became the title of the short story I wrote about Emma and Grace), alongside this detail about where it was painted:
Then she blinks, looks again. What made her think it was her? The figure has a purple mohawk and an eyebrow piercing, a safety pin through its left ear. It’s dressed in a leather jacket and ripped jeans, with a t-shirt that loudly proclaims this to be A MATTER OF ART AND DEATH – a far cry from Isabel’s soft, plain clothing. But it has the same strong, straight eyebrows and defined cheekbones as Isabel, the same lopsided quirk to the lips that passes for her smile.
In one hand, the figure holds a large, dark moth. In the other, a can of spray paint labelled DISOBEDIENCE. It’s Isabel, and it isn’t. It’s a bold Isabel, a mirror image Isabel, an Isabel rebuilt from the skeleton up.
(In the time since The Butterfly Assassin was published, I’ve encountered some discussions about whether this hairstyle should be referred to as a ‘mohawk’, or whether this is racist, or at least culturally insensitive. I’m not aware that any widespread conclusions have been reached, nor am I aware of a widely-used alternative name for the haircut, but I’m very open to learning more on this topic, and I apologise if the language used here is culturally insensitive.)
The punk rock aesthetic that Emma introduces into the story here is just that – an aesthetic, somewhat disconnected from its history. But it’s an essential part of the book’s vibes, and has been from the beginning. It was also something I found challenging to capture in the early drafts, though.
I’m not someone who makes aesthetics and moodboards for my books, because I don’t think visually enough for those to feel useful. But I do make playlists, and playlists are essential. Maggie Stiefvater once said that if she couldn’t build a playlist for a book it was because she didn’t yet know the story well enough (I’m paraphrasing), and that’s exactly how it feels to me: if I don’t have a firm enough grip on the story’s style and mood and tone, I can’t find songs that fit it.
I have been building my playlists for The Butterfly Assassin and its sequels since 2014, and let me tell you, they are absolutely full of bangers. But they were so hard to make at first, because 2014!me mainly listened to a lot of gloomy indie folk and acoustic music, and while that worked well for some of my other projects, it really didn’t work for Isabel. She needed loud, she needed angry, she needed noise. So, I had to go looking for songs that would suit her. I asked around for recommendations, followed chains of related artists, searched random keywords, and built myself a playlist.
It leans more pop punk than pure punk rock, but I think that’s right for Isabel (let’s be real, in another life, she’d be such an emo kid). Initially I made a single playlist, but I split it into individual book playlists a year later once it started to grow, which is why the earliest dates on this are 2015, not 2014. You can see, though, that I’ve kept adding to it over the years. (I also have substantial playlists for books 2 and 3.)
All right. Back to this chapter. Emma’s painting, in its published form, is one of my favourite moments of the book. It’s also the most detailed physical description we get of Isabel, which always makes me laugh. I really hate describing characters, but apparently I’m perfectly happy to describe a brick wall – so when there’s a painting ofthe character on the wall, well, then, we get to find out what they look like, after all.
I would love, one day, to commission an artist to draw a version of this painting. I would also really like to make t-shirts that say A MATTER OF ART AND DEATH, but I currently lack the skills and time to figure out how to do that. Maybe one day.
After viewing the mural, Emma and Isabel make their way to Gauntlet Drive. This has always – for a given value of always, which is to say, since the sixth draft – been the moment when Isabel collapsed, but the actual appearance of enemies was a very late addition, by which I mean that only entered the story in, I think, my second round of structural edits after selling the book. There was a strong need for more tension at this point in the story, and the whole Gauntlet Drive scene wasn’t working in general, to the point where it gets its own section in my notebook as I tried to figure out how to resolve it.
The biggest problem with this scene is that it’s an indirect encounter with Ian Ryans and his agenda – but I didn’t, for a long time, actually know what that agenda was. A lot of things about this book didn’t come together until I sat down and plotted the whole book from Ian’s point of view. What was he trying to achieve? What was going on behind the scenes? We see very little of that – Isabel doesn’t know about it – but I had to know, so that I could make sure his actions actually made sense.
Ian’s miscalculation here is that he thinks that his help is Isabel’s only hope of surviving: he hasn’t accounted for the Sunshine Project. When Emma and Michael take her there, they inadvertently give her back into the hands of Comma, because Daragh has been working for them all along. In doing so, they put her further out of reach of Ian Ryans – but also further away from a civilian life.
And Isabel gives in.
Obviously, this scene mostly entered in the sixth draft, the first where Isabel wasn’t already in hospital at this point, but it was much longer there, and Isabel’s collapse less total. While there are some familiar lines, the chapter continues some way beyond them:
Isabel says: “I’ll do… whatever.”
It is a quiet surrender. It’s easier than she thought it would be, to let go of herself, everything she’s fought to keep.
“I…” Daragh looks at Ronan. “We don’t have the facilities here. She needs a proper hospital.”
“Comma hospitals,” says Ronan Isaacs, “are for Comma agents.”
And Comma doctors. Because Daragh’s been one of them, all this time, and she was never free. She was only kidding herself that she escaped. His soft voice and his gentle hands and she thought he was helping and all this time—
Except he was helping. He knew who she was – he must have known all along – but he didn’t drag her back to the guild the first time she came to his office, desperate enough that she might not have fought. Instead he tried to give her another way out. He lied to her, and the betrayal is a throbbing ache every time she looks at him, but not all of it was a lie.
Comma is Ronan, her parents, bargains and violence and cruelty, but somehow, impossibly, Comma is also Daragh.
Ronan’s waiting for her to speak. He wants to hear her say it, wants to hear her give in. It takes all of Isabel’s energy to raise her hand and give him the finger, but she does it. “Then I’m a fucking Comma agent,” she says.
He has a vicious smile, that man; his eyes like lazy pools of brackish water as they rake over her. “Welcome to the guild, Isabel Ryans,” he says. “I’ll call for a car.”
Eagle-eyed readers will notice that a number of lines from this section got reused, either in the next chapter or later in the book. I have apparently been using a version of the “lazy pools of brackish water” description since the first draft, although it’s moved around. I don’t think I even knew what “brackish” meant at the time (“slightly salty”, btw) but it seemed like such a good description for Ronan, I just kept it forever and moved it to whatever scene I could fit it into. It’s now in chapter 27, so we won’t see it until the fifth of November, but it’s still there.
(What colour would pools of brackish water be? A kind of muddy grey, to my mind, like a slow-moving river, with a threat of danger because you never know quite what’s below the surface. Your mileage may vary. My copyeditor did query this description at one point, to which I responded, ‘I mean the intended meaning was “incompatible with life; unpleasant; if you rely on it to save you it will in fact kill you instead” but I can see my metaphors are getting lost’, and then did not change it at all to clarify this fact. But now you know. That is the vibe.)
Fortunately, making the Gauntlet Drive scene more dramatic also meant that Isabel’s collapse could be more dramatic, and we could cut the scene off right after Isabel makes a semi-coherent deal: I’ll do … whatever. Everything she’s been fighting for so far in this book, her independence and her life away from the guild, down the drain in the desperate pursuit of survival.
But there’ll be a way out, right? A loophole? A way of worming her way out of this deal… right?
Or will there?
Anyway, time for your thoughts on this chapter! I want to know what you thought of Emma’s mural, of the action scene at Gauntlet Drive (I didn’t even cover the issue of how much I hate writing action scenes, lol), and of the moment of Isabel’s surrender to Comma. Or do you not see it as a surrender, but simply a pragmatic act of survival? Let me know in the comments.
We’ll have another post tomorrow, but then the timeline gets fuzzier as Isabel drifts in and out of consciousness, so posts will be getting less frequent for a while. I don’t know if that’s a relief or a disappointment to you, but I’ll admit, it’s a relief to me, as it’s been hard work getting all these posts written and prepped 😅