24/11, Infano (TBA Readalong)

We’re picking up speed again with our readalong of The Butterfly Assassin – you can expect daily posts for the next week or so as we accelerate towards the end of the book. (Which I had not totally remembered was the case and I have not written them, so imagine me hastily writing posts like that one Wallace & Gromit gif of laying train tracks frantically as you zoom along.)

I feel like I need to put some content warnings on this post. While it won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s read this chapter that we’re going to be talking about the deaths of teenagers, there are some details from past drafts that are considerably more gruesome and dramatic than what actually ended up in the book, so, fair warning, we’re talking about organ harvesting, sorry.

Today is the 24th of November, and on this day in 2029, Isabel Ryans kills two people: her sixteen-year-old target, Oliver Roe, and her classmate, Nick Larrington, who saw her with the body. No hesitation, no mercy, no witnesses. There was, arguably, a moment of hesitation, if we’re feeling charitable towards Isabel. But there was no space for mercy, and by the end of the chapter, there were no witnesses.

Isabel has always killed Nick – there has never been a version of the book where he survived – but I have to say, there were some drafts where the circumstances of that were considerably more unhinged. Notably, the second draft, in which she. Uh. Harvested his organs?

“I have to.”

“No, Isabel, you don’t. Whatever twisted ideas the guilds have put in your head, this is not your only choice!”

Isabel moves quickly, pinning him against the wall. He’s still shaking, looks like he’s about to throw up. “You don’t know anything about my choices,” she says.

“I know that killing me doesn’t have to be one of them,” he says. “If you’d told me I was a donor match I probably would have given you one of my kidneys anyway.”

“Fuck off.”

“I would. If it would have helped, I would have done it. But this… this isn’t the way to solve anything.” He breaks off. “You’re crying.”

“I’m dying,” she says. “I’m dying and they won’t help me if I’m not one of them. I have to – I have to be loyal. And you’ve been on their radar for a while now. It’s only chance that makes this any more than a stupid pointless death like all the other stupid pointless deaths in this city. You would have told someone. Next week. Next month. A year. You would have opened your mouth and Comma would have killed you.”

Look. Sometimes when I tell people that I completely rewrote this book from the ground up, they’re like, “Oh, I could never do that, I don’t like the idea of an editor making me change my book.” And leaving aside the fact that the most drastic changes in this book have all been ones I decided to make rather than being an editor’s recommendation… sometimes, the book is bad. Sometimes, the book involves your supposedly sympathetic viewpoint character harvesting her classmate’s organs.

Sometimes, yeeting a plot point is for the best.

Isabel required organ transplants right up until the fifth draft, if I remember rightly, at which point I decided it screwed the pacing too much to put her in recovery for that long, but poor Nick was no longer the unwilling donor after the second draft. Since the third draft, his death has been much the same as the final version: after Isabel kills her mark at the nightclub, she kills Nick to eliminate a witness. Some of the details have changed, but the basic scene has been the same.

Poor Nick. He really did only ever try to be Isabel’s friend. Sometimes, I think Nick’s the character I relate to most in this book – especially the reference in the early chapters to the fact that he sometimes cries while reading the news. I do the same. I’ve been doing that a lot recently, and you’d think with the constant barrage of atrocities, I’d get desensitised to it, but I don’t. I’m still haunted by it. I never want to be the kind of person who isn’t, if I’m honest, but I don’t think I’d survive in a city like Espera.

One thing I did rediscover when I was looking at the second draft was this little worldbuilding detail:

“Let’s go. Before anyone comes to see why the shot was fired.”

They’ll have given it the Esperan Fifteen – quarter of an hour to let whatever agents still in the area get out of there before you go and investigate. Give it less than that and you might find your own body joining the weekly murder figures. Could take a lot longer for anyone to come, if there’s nobody nearby, but it’s best not to push it.

The idea of the “Esperan Fifteen” makes sense, in a city like this – when you know assassins are operating in your vicinity, you’re not going to go running towards a gunshot to find out what happened, because 99% of the time, you already know what happened, and the only thing you’ll achieve if you do is end up a witness, and therefore dead. But at some point I stopped explicitly spelling that out in the book, and the phrase was lost; I’d forgotten about it until now.

And then there’s Oliver.

Until the sixth draft, Oliver didn’t have a name. He ended up being Oliver because nearly everybody in one of my writing group chats at the time had an Oliver in their books, often one who died, and it became, briefly, an in-joke, so when I realised he didn’t have a name, I gave it to him. It was important to me, that he should have a name in the end. That he should be a person.

Isabel does not know why Oliver is on the guilds’ hit list. She doesn’t know why somebody paid to eliminate a sixteen-year-old. She knows that the money was good, because Ronan told her; good enough that the guild didn’t turn the job down. And that’s the only information she has.

But I know.

Oliver’s backstory is traumatic in a way that I didn’t feel could be sensitively or meaningfully explored in this book, and therefore it cannot be on the page, or anywhere in the trilogy. He deserves more than a passing note, and there’s no space to give him one. Suffice to say that he was innocent, and killed to cover up the wrongdoings of others, and because those others were adults and they were rich and they were powerful, and he was young and poor, they were able to click their fingers and have the guild come running.

Ronan knew. Isabel didn’t. It probably wouldn’t have made a difference if she did, because she didn’t feel like she had any choice, either way. And there’s no good reason to kill a sixteen-year-old (or, indeed, anyone), so it’s not like she wouldn’t suspect that it was this kind of situation.

Oliver’s death is the first premeditated murder that Isabel commits in this book, and we’re 300 pages into it. We might expect it to be more difficult than it seems to be, but then we’d be forgetting who Isabel is, the upbringing she’s had. And I think it’s hard, as people who don’t live in Espera, to fully grasp the impact of living in a city where the guilds and their actions are so normalised, to the point where dying at the hands of the guilds is practically more common than dying of natural causes.

Still: It should be harder than this, to live with herself.

It’s harder in this draft than it was in earlier ones; that’s about as much as I can say about that, and that’s less because I was deliberately writing Isabel as colder-hearted in early drafts than because in general, emotions weren’t effectively layered into the book until much later than they should have been.

One difference, though, is that at the end of this chapter, Isabel imagines the judgment of the world, crying out in horror that the guilds would kill a teenager – just a child. And Isabel thinks, So was I.

But in the earlier drafts, like the third draft, it wasn’t faceless judgement from the media and the newspaper that Isabel feared – it was judgment from an imaginary version of Mortimer.

She’s sitting in Mortimer’s workshop. “What if the guilds killed children, too?” she asks him, and his expression is horrified. Her fingers twist around each other. She’s afraid.

“I’d protect them,” he says. “And I’d hunt down the bastards who did it.”

The dream merges, and she’s running from someone, being chased through a forest of city skyscrapers flickering with the LED lights of technological stars. It doesn’t take long for her dream self to realise that it’s Mortimer who is chasing her, hunting her down.

He pins her to the ground, one of the woodwork knives in his hand. “You killed children,” he says to her. “That boy was just a child.”

But he’s fading to blackness along with her surroundings, the dream melting away with her answer still on her lips: “So was I.”

The first part of this scene is a memory, a scene that happened early on in the third draft and was since cut. Mortimer’s protective instincts have been present from an early stage in the book’s development, but his abolitionist values less so. The rest is her imagination, and even the third draft’s Mortimer wouldn’t actually have tried to hurt her.

But I thought it was interesting, that her subconscious focused on him as the source of judgment. I’m not sure when I changed that, but it was striking to rediscover.

Anyway. Bit of a bleak chapter. Bit of a dark moment for Isabel – and the worst part is, it’s barely even a turning point in her arc, because the turning point was the decision, not acting on it. Tomorrow, we’ll see Isabel exploring some of the emotional consequences and the aftermath of this act, but for now, I want to know what you think.

Did this chapter change how you saw Isabel? Did you think her friendship with Nick would end like this? Does his death seem worse than Oliver’s, or does the personal connection make no difference?

Drop your answers, or any other thoughts on this chapter, in the comments, and I’ll see you back here soon.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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