I’m still having some trouble with WordPress subscriptions, particularly with WP Reader, so do let me know in the comments if you’re successfully receiving this post via subscription so I know it’s less broken than I fear. If you’ve missed the earlier posts in the series, we started on Sunday with 17/09, Eraro. If you’re wondering what this is all about, we’re (re)reading The Butterfly Assassin together in ‘real time’ according to the story’s chronology, and discussing the writing process and worldbuilding and anything else that catches my attention. Grab a copy and join us!
On the 20th September, Ian Crampton is identified and named in the papers. We learn that he was only 21, and the primary carer for his chronically ill sister. Isabel, meanwhile, goes to school, sits through a History lesson about the city’s origins, and has a panic attack, which leads to meeting Emma Westray for the first time.
This chapter might be the first time that the guilds’ true business is explicitly spelled out: the most powerful arms dealers on Earth, answerable to no one but the highest bidder. As I mentioned in a previous post, this crucial piece of worldbuilding was something I didn’t figure out until the fifth draft. And I wish I could tell you how I thought the guilds worked before that, but I’ll be honest: worldbuilding in early drafts, for me, tends to be purely a matter of vibes.
See, in the very first draft of this book, I hadn’t even decided whether Espera was in the real world, or whether it was a completely alternate universe kind of setting. I knew it was ruled by assassins, but that was as far as that went. How two competing guilds would be able to sustain themselves – within a closed city with a finite population – and who was paying them were questions that 2014!me didn’t seem to think were important. It was only in 2018 that the missing pieces started falling into place, and in 2019, during Author Mentor Match, that I really dug down deep into the details.
But the fact that the guilds are arms dealers is crucial, not just to constructing a world that makes economic sense, but also to the point of the book – its themes and metaphors. Anyone who has read the Author’s Note at the end knows that I have some strong opinions about everyday militarism, the normalisation of violence, and the routine military recruitment of teenagers in the UK. And the UK arms industry is a huge part of that, supplying weapons to whoever will pay for them – even regimes accused of human rights abuses – enabling the exacerbation of global conflict.
As I write this, on 9th September, a ‘festival of resistance’ is taking place outside the ExCel centre in London, where one of the largest arms fairs takes place every other September. Were it not for train strikes, injury, and 32℃ heat, I would be there with them. Instead, this book is a small act of resistance. By taking something we’ve normalised into invisibility in everyday life and making it just a little strange, a little different to reality, I’m demanding we ask questions of the violence our society puts into the world.
The guilds don’t train children. But they did. Just as 20% of new recruits into the UK military and 25% in the army specifically are under the age of 18. Just as cadets are taught rifle drills from the age of 12. Just as disadvantaged teenagers are preyed on by military recruiters who tell them the army is a route to a better life. Did you know, you can apply to join the military aged fifteen and seven months? Join properly at sixteen as a “junior soldier”?
Writing a novel isn’t inherently activism. But if by putting these things on the page and demanding people pay attention I make one person question why we think this is okay, then maybe I’ll have made a difference.
I have, in my worldbuilding document from 2019, a short story about the city’s past. It’s not ‘canon’. I don’t know whether I think it actually happened, within the universe of the book. But I wrote it as part of developing Espera’s history and relationship with the outside world, and it directly addresses the DSEI arms fair, and the protests about it – the ones I might be at right now, were I healthier and the trains more cooperative. Here’s a scene from it:
Several decades after Espera’s declaration of independence, both guilds send a representative to a global arms fair taking place in London. They’re met there by protestors, blocking the steps of the convention centre: a group who hold each other’s hands and sing and refuse to be moved, even as the police presence in the area increases. At their feet they have a tapestry, woven from squares contributed by friends and allies not standing with them today.
The representative from Comma is surprisingly young – in his twenties, probably. He has grey eyes like puddles under a sullen sky, and when he sees the demo he steps away from the group before anybody can stop him, away from security, and walks over to the idealists on the steps.
None of the cameras are close enough to pick up his words, spoken too quietly to be audible, but they catch the impassive steel of his face, the implacable storms of his eyes as he glances back at his companions before speaking to the protestors.
When he’s finished, they sit for a moment in stunned silence, and then one young woman gets to her feet. Her words can barely be heard above the chill autumnal breeze: ‘If it weren’t for the fact that I believe in the inherent light in all people,’ she says, ‘I’d think there was nothing human in you at all. You have buried your light deep.’
The young man, hearing this, smiles. He has a predator’s smile, all teeth and no joy, but she stands firm where others would have retreated. Then he turns, and walks back to the group, rejoining them as though nothing has happened.
Everybody has heard the rumours about Espera. They know Comma’s reputation. It seems inevitable, then, that the girl will be reported dead, her body found precisely murdered – but she isn’t. Although the image of her speaking to the representative makes waves online, she goes about her life untouched and unafraid. After several days with no retaliation, it becomes clear that she will not die for this.
Perhaps that is because, whatever her intention, Ronan Atwood took her words as a compliment.
(The young woman in this scene is not anybody real, or a character I will come back to. But based on her words, she’s a Quaker, and in that regard, she’s inspired by all of the Quakers I’ve met who do attend these protests. This scene probably took place in 2019, since I remember people around me making squares for that tapestry. Ronan would have been 27. My age.)
In this chapter, we’re reminded of the harm Isabel has done – killing a 21-year-old whose sister needed him, a sister whose autoimmune condition foreshadows Isabel’s own illness – at the same time as seeing the harm that has been done to her. Her fear, her bad memories, the story behind the scar on her palm, and finally, her panic attack in the school toilets.
And that’s where we meet Emma Westray.
Emma. Sunshine and colour and hope, Isabel says about her later. For now, we know only that she’s a brown-haired girl wearing glasses and a concerned expression. I love doing this: one abstract noun and one concrete one, with the same verb. I think it’s called a zeugma, and I’m kind of obsessed with them. Unlike Nick and his changeable appearance, Emma has had brown hair and glasses since she first showed up in the first draft, although their first meeting went differently.
Emma was also canonically trans from the first draft through to the fourth. It wasn’t an important part of her character – it was mentioned once in passing, when talking about her childhood, as she thought Isabel already knew that about her. I cut that detail because I wasn’t sure about the dynamics at work, and thought it might play into some harmful tropes: the trans best friend supporting the cis character without a strong plotline of her own… not to mention, of course, how the book ends. If it had been more of a Thing about her, I probably wouldn’t have cut it; since it really was just a single line, I thought the potential for harm outweighed any benefits of that kind of representation.
But in my head, I never really started thinking of Emma as cis. In fact, given that her foster brother, Leo, is canonically trans, I have a vague headcanon that all of Toni Rolleston’s foster kids are trans, and Leo is just the only one Isabel knows about. It is, after all, not the sort of detail she’d be likely to pay attention to.
(You are free to adopt or reject this headcanon as you see fit, since only Leo’s identity is confirmed on page.)
So we have in this chapter the darkness of this story, the reminder that Isabel is a killer and that she has done real harm, as well as been harmed significantly by others, and we also have the first glimpse of its light. Emma, my beloved. Emma teaches Isabel to ground herself amidst a panic attack, focusing on sensory details, and Isabel continues using this technique the entire way through the book.
What struck you about this chapter: the violence, the worldbuilding, the memories, or Emma? Or something else entirely? Were you aware of the UK arms industry and the recruitment of teenagers into the military before you read this book/my author’s note/this blog post, or did that strike you as something unrealistic in the story, exaggerated for the sake of fiction? (I always find this an interesting critique to receive in reviews because I would love for these to be unrealistic details, but unfortunately, reality is terrible.)
As always, leave your answers or any other comments or questions in the comments below and I will be delighted to read them :)