In 2029, the 21st September is a Friday, bringing us to the end of a school week for Isabel – a week that began with a murder, and is ending with severe stomach pain and nausea, heralding dangers to come. We’re on Chapter 6, for those following along with the book itself: Isabel in the library resenting her History homework, talking to Grace Whittock and Emma Westray, and finally, finding a warning message from Hummingbird in the letterbox at her flat.
This is quite a worldbuilding-heavy chapter, which is great, because it gives me plenty to talk about without resorting to analysing metaphors or other on-page details.
Isabel’s reluctant engagement with History as a school subject is the main mechanism I used to provide information about the city’s history, because there’s no real reason it would have come up otherwise. It’s not news to Isabel, when she’s lived there all her life, and it’s rarely of interest, either, since nothing much is changing. There’s no reason for her to suddenly start reflecting on it for the benefit of the reader.
Having a teacher bring it up, though, or having her struggle to reconcile the sanitised history in her school textbooks with what she learned growing up within the guild… yes, that helps us get the details across without belabouring the point, although there’s still a lot that didn’t make it to the page.
I mentioned early on in the readalong that I do a lot of my worldbuilding retrospectively. As such, many of the crucial details about Espera showed up somewhere between the fifth and sixth drafts. Draft V was when the book started looking roughly like a precursor to this book, and Draft VI was a total rewrite based on feedback from Rory Power as part of Author Mentor Match – and a lot of Rory’s questions were about worldbuilding.
That’s actually where my big 2019 worldbuilding document comes from: it was the answers I wrote for Rory, and the details I developed as a result of her questions. As such, while some of the details given in this chapter about Espera’s history – founded during WW1 for weapons development, located in Yorkshire, closed itself off and declared independence – predate that document, essentially none of this had successfully made it onto the page before Draft VI, the AMM Rewrite.
And most of it is first found (at least in readable form) in that worldbuilding document, as part of the same section that gave us that Ronan scene from the other day:
The day the city of Espera declares itself independent, there are several deaths. They go unnoticed at first, underreported; one is in his home, on annual leave, and another visiting family in Scotland. Too far apart to seem connected, even when the bodies are found in Westminster. They’re from different departments. One works in imports, hardly government at all.
And then Espera closes the gates it’s been building these last few months, and several civil servants step off trains at London Kings Cross with their luggage and their notes in their hands, and word goes out that the city is closed now, locked in on itself and keeping to its own laws.
It was never open. Espera wasn’t built to be open. It was built to make weapons, to do the research that would win England the War, and when the war was won it kept looking, kept experimenting, kept building. Never a place you’d visit for the day and then walk away when you wanted. But this is a different kind of closed.
The government hunts for legislation to prove Espera has no right to do this. They check by-laws. They start ringing the offices of the people who dealt with the city to ask if they knew, if they saw it coming – and that’s when they realise.
Espera starts the way it means to go on: by killing anyone who gets in the way.
‘This is an act of war,’ the minister says. He’s just been promoted. They found his predecessor in a pool of his own blood this morning. ‘We have to retaliate.’
The man with the authority to attack is dead too.
The last three shipments of munitions from Espera’s factories didn’t arrive; the junior officer responsible for the paperwork was gone before he could report it.
The message comes through: Espera is no longer content to play armourer for the country’s government. If they want its weapons, they can trade, like everybody else.
I can also tell you that in the very earliest drafts, none of that was true (because, as mentioned, I hadn’t figured out that the guilds were arms dealers yet); Espera was a city in a non-specific alternate world, and then at one point it was Alternate Universe Sheffield, for no reasons other than that Sheffield seemed like it was a good size for what I needed. This is the origin of Espera’s trams: it has trams because Sheffield does, and once upon a time, it was Sheffield.
(I kept them once I relocated the city because they suited the Espera’s history and its focus on clean energy and public facilities, but also because trams are cool. I like trams.)
And I can tell you that the use of Esperanto significantly predates me coming up with an actual worldbuilding reason for that. In this chapter, we’re told that the wartime project drew scientists and spies from across different European countries, and as such, they needed a common language that didn’t imply one country’s dominance over the others within the project. Esperanto was proposed and adopted, and that’s why the guilds still use it as their primary language of business.
This… makes sense. Esperanto is a conlang created in the 1870-1880s by L.L. Zamenhof; amidst the First World War, a language of unity and hope like this might have seemed like a good prospect, and it was still a reasonably new, up-and-coming kind of thing at the time, not a relic or curiosity. My own Esperanto dictionary, obtained secondhand, dates to 1913. It also makes sense for cross-European communication, given its strong similarities to a lot of romance languages, making it fairly easy to learn if those are your first language.
The use of Esperanto, in fact, helped me come up with the city’s backstory, provided one of the pieces that tied it all together, and all in all, grounded it in the early 20th century.
Originally, though, it was a joke.
I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I created Isabel, at first, for an entirely different book: she was a secondary character in a crime novel, a 23-year-old secretary whose backstory was that she’d once been an assassin. When somebody’s murdered in her workplace, her boss naturally suspects her, but she ends up taking on more of a detective’s role, because she suspects her former guild are involved in the killings.
I never finished this book because I never figured out who the murderer was, but eventually I realised Isabel’s backstory was the most interesting thing about her and jumped backwards to write that instead. But three things have always been true about her:
- Her name has always been Isabel Ryans.
- Her guild has always been called Comma.
- Her first language has always been Esperanto.
This version of Isabel, way back in 2012, was raised by eccentric parents who travelled extensively, and raised their daughter through Esperanto, claiming it would allow her to fit in everywhere and instead ensuring she would fit in nowhere. This in turn was concocted to explain why she might speak the language, which I had chosen for no reason other than that it was the most unlikely (and therefore humorously unusual) language I could think of for her to speak.
That’s it. That was the whole logic. “What’s the weirdest language Isabel could have as her first language? Esperanto.” And I built so much worldbuilding on that detail, that detail that started as a joke. Hell, I learned a bunch of Esperanto for it, although mi estas komencanto even now after all these years, since I’ve been more focused on Irish.
In this chapter we also learn that there was once a single organisation, which split into Comma and Hummingbird after a schism. We don’t learn much more about this process – Isabel doesn’t know what happened either, her reading interrupted at that point – and, to be honest, it never gets spelled out in any detail in the trilogy, so this seems like a good excuse to share another excerpt from my worldbuilding notes.
At first, it’s one group they find themselves trading with. Not a provisional government; they don’t see themselves as politicians or leaders. But they’re in charge nonetheless. They call themselves Flight, if they call themselves anything, and they are unflinching negotiators. Why wouldn’t they be? They hold all the cards in this game. […]
Inevitably, those wings split, shattering into two factions that threaten to destroy the peace of Espera, a city where the worst danger has only ever come from within. The schism rages largely unnoticed by the outside world, but for the handful of ministers and civil servants whose business it is to pay attention to what happens behind Espera’s walls. They pay smugglers (already doing a roaring trade taking outside goods into the city) to bring them the news they can’t get through official means. It’s the smugglers who bring word of the ceasefire, of the two rival guilds that have built themselves from the wreckage of Flight. The first, the stronger faction, names itself Comma – a butterfly’s grace and a lethal pause. The second, Hummingbird: vicious and fast.
Which is where I should point out, for the benefit of those who hadn’t made the connection yet (it happens) that a Comma is a type of butterfly, not only a punctuation mark, although initially, way back in 2012, Isabel’s guild was named for the latter. (I became aware of the butterfly as a result of a comment left on this blog, but I’ve told that story before, so we won’t dwell on it now.)
There are other worldbuilding hints in this chapter: a casual reference to Lutton’s Free Press readership, implying that the anti-guild abolitionist movement may become relevant at some stage; a quick overview of the relationship between guilds and freelance contract killers (not friendly); a glimpse of the minors’ training programme that traumatised Isabel, and the people who were part of it (Toni Rolleston, for example). For a fairly short chapter, I managed to cram a lot into it.
And all of that is on top of finding out that Emma is a library prefect, having started out as a shelving assistant while on academic probation for graffiti – if you’ve read the short story I wrote as a preorder incentive for The Hummingbird Killer, you’ll know how that went down. I had a lot of fun writing that, and getting a glimpse of a younger Emma. In the earliest draft, Isabel first met her in the library, so she’s always been closely connected to it in my mind. We’ll see more of the street art later in the book, and I’ll talk more about it then, but it’s always been crucial to my vision for this book, and how I wanted the city to look.
We also, in this chapter, see Isabel experiencing the first (or perhaps second) symptoms of poisoning, in the form of severe stomach pain, and when she returns home, it’s to find a threat from Hummingbird, implying they know about Ian Crampton. Danger is closing in, from illness or from enemies, and while we’re learning about Espera’s past, Isabel is just trying to survive its present…
Over to you, then. I’m interested to know how easy you found it to get a sense of Espera’s history and purpose, and whether you have any interesting headcanons about the first century of the city’s existence, since we encounter it almost a century after it closed itself off. I’m also interested to know how you responded to these early meetings with Grace and Emma. Did your opinion on them as characters change over time? When (if ever) did you start to get invested in them?
Tell me all of these things, or other things, or these things and other things, in the comments, and let’s get talking.