Hello, dear friends and readers. Today is the 20th of November, and I’m back with another post in our readalong of The Butterfly Assassin. I’m curious as to how many of you are still reading – I have one very dedicated commenter, but I suspect/hope there are more of you lurking – and for those who’ve checked out, I’d be interested to know. Is it that the readalong format doesn’t work for you in general, or is it more about this particular book at this specific time?
Because if it’s the latter, I sympathise. I really do. There have been many times when I’ve struggled to write Isabel at her worst and maintain sympathy for her amidst a world that makes those actions no longer hypothetical. The current situation in Gaza makes it hard to find entertainment in children under threat and teenagers in desperate situations just trying to survive, and I wouldn’t blame anyone who seeks distraction in kinder stories.
But this has been the case since I first wrote the book in 2014: it has always echoed and mirrored the worst things on the news, because it has always been drawn from them. Espera is fictional, but the UK arms industry isn’t. The guilds are fictional, but the military recruitment of teenagers isn’t. These characters are fictional, but thousands – millions – of people worldwide have been deemed by governments to be less important than profit and politics, weapons and war, and they have suffered because of it.
So yes, I struggle sometimes to look at Isabel’s hardest decisions and most unforgiveable actions and offer lighthearted commentary as though they are ‘only’ fiction. They’ve never been only fiction. But that’s why stories matter.
And today’s post deals, in a preliminary way, with one of those hard decisions and unforgiveable actions, because on the 20th of November, Ronan comes to visit Isabel, and gives her a job. A target. A mark to eliminate.
A sixteen-year-old boy.
And Isabel takes it, because she’s trapped in a corner with her back against the wall and she told him, I’ll do anything, so now she’s got to. If it’s going to happen anyway, resisting will only cause her more pain; being forced won’t save anyone, and will make it suck for her, so why not agree?
This is a knife you’re using on yourself, says Daragh, and he’s probably right, but there’s a kind of agency in seeing the bad thing coming and taking control over it yourself, rather than waiting for it to become inevitable and unavoidable in somebody else’s hands. Crucially, too, this chapter underlines the difference between Daragh and Isabel. He thinks that she still has choices, other ways to work for the guild; Isabel thinks there is no way of working for the guild that wouldn’t make her complicit in their actions, so she might as well be the worst of them.
I’m not saying that Isabel is wrong about the former – I think being part of the ‘blood-soaked machinery of Comma’, as she puts it, does always come with some complicity about the guild’s actions, because every role within the organisation is geared towards enabling those ends. But that doesn’t mean she’s right about the latter. If her goal was really to do as little harm as possible, then there would be ways of doing that, ways to take the path of least damage. She could, like Daragh, work in the medical division, and save lives rather than take them.
But Isabel isn’t thinking about net harm; she’s thinking about being able to live with herself. And on that level, she sees no difference. Guild is guild is guild. A knife feels like honesty when violence is the only truth you’ve ever been offered.
And Isabel is so stubbornly determined to let others think the worst of her. Here, she doesn’t even want Daragh’s sympathy, because she doesn’t believe she deserves it – she’s certainly not going to beg for it, or make excuses for herself. She’s embracing her villain status, because she feels it’s inevitable and because she doesn’t believe she deserves to be anything else.
Daragh sees through that, defuses it with a mention of Emma, and then:
You’re allowed to be loved, Isabel. You know that, don’t you?
These are the moments that mean everything and are, simultaneously, the hardest to hold as true at times when the world is particularly cruel, the times when I don’t want to hold any love in my heart for people who would kill children regardless of their trauma or lack of agency. I don’t want to love them, because love feels like forgiveness, and I have no right to forgive those people. I am not the one harmed by them.
Forgiveness, though. It’s not the be all and end all of everything, is it? Redemption and forgiveness aren’t the same thing; second chances and forgiveness aren’t the same thing; peace and forgiveness aren’t the same thing; love and forgiveness aren’t the same thing.
Love, in moments like this, is about recognising humanity. You, too, are a human being, and we are bound to each other, and we owe each other safety, and your life is connected to mine. It’s not a softness – it’s an act of recognition that comes with obligations. No, that word’s too negative. Responsibilities, maybe. A shared contract of humanity, the question of what we owe to each other. Isabel has spent so much of her life not being loved; it’s unsurprising that she’s unpractised at doing it in return. It’s uncomfortable to receive it, too: she would rather hide from it.
This plot point has long existed in some form, but this chapter has changed considerably over the years. It was a very late addition for Ronan to hold Isabel’s poison over her head as a bargaining chip, but that, I think, added a layer to the impossibility of her decision, since no matter what she chooses, she is being used to harm others.
In earlier drafts, almost all the emotional complexity was absent; as late as the fifth draft, Isabel agreed readily to the job, simply for the chance to leave the hospital, with no hesitation. It should be obvious why I changed that – while likeable is a boring criterion for a protagonist, I still wanted readers to be able to sympathise.
What I found really interesting looking back at the old drafts is that usually Ronan is the one who gives this file to Isabel, but in the October 2020 draft – the version that went on sub, and sold to Simon & Schuster – she chooses it. We don’t see that moment happen. The first half of the chapter is exploring a lot of the same emotions as this one, with Daragh challenging Isabel on her decision to go back into the field as a kind of self-destructive defence mechanism, but Isabel has sought out Ronan and asked him for a job that will then enable her to leave the hospital, because she thinks that’s the only way she can protect Emma from the city’s dangers.
“Being physically fit enough to kill isn’t the same as being ready to go back in the field.” Ronan regards her. “Daragh doesn’t think you’d pass a psych assessment.”
“He’s your doctor.”
“Yeah, not my psychologist. Did he tell you not to sign off on this?”
“He expressed concerns.”
Of course Daragh would never actually stop her. He’s too concerned about her autonomy for that. If Isabel wants to self-flagellate, he’ll let her, but he’ll do everything he can to stop her getting her hands on the whip in the first place. Sometimes, it’s admirable. Right now, it’s pissing her off.
“You want me in the field,” says Isabel. “I want me in the field. There shouldn’t be any conflict here.”
Ronan watches her for a moment more, then sighs deeply. “All right.”
Somehow it doesn’t feel like a victory. “You mean it?”
“One assignment,” he says. “You fuck it up, or it fucks you up, and you’re out until Daragh says otherwise. We’ll discuss your housing situation afterwards.”
He agreed. He’s going to let her leave. “I won’t fuck it up,” she promises.
“I’d hope not.” He doesn’t believe her, but he’s not arguing, and that’s a gift horse she’s not about to look in the mouth. She turns to leave, and is almost to the door when Ronan speaks again. “Isabel?” he says. “For your sake, pick an easy one.”
Crucially, in this draft we don’t know anything about the mark until we meet him. We don’t see Isabel choose the file, we don’t know whether his age gives her pause, we don’t question why the guild would be targeting a teenager. We only know that Ronan told her to choose, and she did.
This Isabel is a more active participant in this act of violence. Does that make her a more culpable one? Our Isabel still chose, still agreed, even if her options were narrower and her decision more directly coerced; some would argue there’s no difference, when the end result is the same. I think there is a difference; if I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t have changed it.
But. I don’t know. I’ve been thinking, as I write this chapter, about the way both of these chapters have Isabel accepting her own unlovability, and Daragh saying: you’re allowed to be loved. You know that, don’t you? Except in the published book, it comes after she’s made this decision, after she’s accepted the worst version of herself because she thinks it’s the only viable way forward. And in the 2020 draft, it comes before she’s made this decision, but it doesn’t stop her from making it.
I’m not going to go any further with analysing that; I’d rather leave it open for you to think about how that change affects how you read Isabel in this moment. Do you sympathise with Isabel in the published book, when she takes that file from Ronan? Would you still sympathise with an Isabel who wasn’t handed that file but chose it for herself, out of all the jobs Comma could be doing in the city that week?
Does it matter, in the end, who dies, if somebody is going to? And does it matter who killed them, if the whole system enabled it, and everybody within that system is partly responsible for perpetuating it?
What does this culpability mean for us, now, in the systems we live in, and knowing the violence those systems enable?
I don’t have the answers. I wrote this trilogy because I didn’t, and I needed a way of thinking about them. But sometimes thinking with fiction is more bearable than thinking with reality, so it’s important that we do it, and use that understanding in the real world.
I’ll see you in a couple of days for a phone call with Emma, and one of my favourite lines in the book.