25/11, Homŝtelo–Preparo (TBA Readalong)

Today’s post for our readalong of The Butterfly Assassin covers chapters 30 and 31 – we’re in a rapid slide towards the end of the book now, and accelerating (Monday’s post is going to need to cover five chapters, and I haven’t figured out how to do that yet. Might have to split it!)

On the 25th of November, Isabel deals with the aftermath of killing Oliver Roe and Nick Larrington. This comes in the form of Daragh trying to persuade her to talk about her feelings (a doomed endeavour, but we love him for trying); Ronan formally welcoming her into the guild and giving her the nickname she’s had since she was a child in training, the Moth; the newspapers reporting on Oliver’s death, forcing Isabel to accept the reality of what she’s done; Emma not answering the phone when Isabel calls, making her think her friend has turned her back on her because of what she’s done; and Leo breaking into the hospital to deliver the news that Emma has been kidnapped.

So that’s… a lot.

It’s been a while since we had a worldbuilding-focused discussion, but there are a few bits in this chapter that are worth dwelling on. In particular, there’s a worldbuilding detail in this chapter which is different in the audiobook and the ARCs compared to the finished book. (The audiobook was recorded from the text used for the ARC, so any last-minute changes didn’t get incorporated.)

This detail is Isabel’s comment about the Esperan newspapers, and the amount of information they share about guild kills. In the finished book, it reads:

Daragh tosses a newspaper onto the bed. She pushes it away without looking at it. ‘They’re speculating about you, you know. Well, about Comma’s newest. No calling card means no pseudonym to claim the kill.’

She doesn’t want to put her name on this, to give the city a target for its condemnation. Only La Revuo publishes pseudonyms alongside obits, but somehow word spreads beyond the pages of the guild newspaper and across the rest of Espera. Three Swallowtail kills this month, people say, if they’re the kind to keep track of that. Or: Nothing from Skipper in a while. Do you think they’ve retired? Those kinds of comments are made with relief, or fear: an older agent off the circuit, no longer a threat, means a new one coming to take their place and their name.

The version in the ARC and audiobook is almost the same, except for the first half of that second paragraph:

She doesn’t want to put her name on this, to give the city a target for its condemnation. Only the guild papers – the Times and the Express for the adjacents, La Revuo for top six – publish pseudonyms alongside obits, but word spreads across the rest of the city anyway.

It’s a small difference, the idea that pseudonyms are only published in one newspaper rather than three. And, honestly, the change doesn’t matter that much. I made it because by the time I was doing these proofreads, I had already drafted The Hummingbird Killer, and there were certain scenes in that book that rested on the idea that only La Revuo was officially a guild paper, and that this paper alonecontained the pseudonyms and this level of information about guild killers.

Those scenes mostly ended up getting cut, so although the same detail is referenced in a few places in The Hummingbird Killer, there are no longer any plot points resting on them the way there were before. (For example, one scene involved a civilian character getting their hands on La Revuo and joining some dots about Isabel’s activities as a result; that’s gone.) La Revuo remains the only official guild paper in the trilogy, but it doesn’t really matter that it is. Except that it means the ARC and audiobook have a continuity error that the paperback doesn’t have, which I find vaguely amusing.

(And this, kids, is why you don’t quote from ARCs without checking quotations against the published book, especially if you’re resting an argument on a tiny detail like this…)

Espera’s newspapers have played various roles in this book so far, obviously, and we’ve talked about them in some of the earlier posts. One question that was raised in the comments was why an otherwise slightly futuristic city like Espera, in 2029, with its solar panels and generally high level of technology, would still be relying on print media. I answered this in the comments, but I thought I’d circle back to it now, since we’re talking about papers again – and even newspapers for guild members, who otherwise have access to resources that civilians don’t have.

There are two main reasons I used newspapers so much in this trilogy. Number one: the aesthetic and the vibes. I can’t lie and pretend that wasn’t part of it! The simple practicalities of a physical object that characters could interact with, deliver, see in passing, crumple into a ball, print in secret, hide from each other… it has so many possibilities that purely digital media doesn’t have. Plus, I’d drawn a lot of my ideas about closed cities and resistance to oppressive regimes from 20th century history, and radio and newspapers were a recurring theme – naturally, they crept into my worldbuilding.

But reason number two is a more considered one: print media is a lot easier for the guilds to control. When you have social media and digital communication, there is a democratising of information that makes it very hard to maintain an Official Narrative and restrict sources of information. You can see it right now, in the discrepancies between official news sources talking about Gaza, and the Instagram videos from young journalists on the ground in the area talking about their own experiences. The official narrative fails, because there are too many voices. If you want to control a city effectively and squash resistance to your authority, you need to control the narrative and you need to control the news. That’s a lot easier to do if you’ve got print media that has to pass censors and receive official approval to be printed than if anyone in the city can share information online.

As the trilogy goes on, of course, we see more and more of the cracks in that narrative wall: the Free Press and their Weekly Bulletin are only the start of that, and once they go digital, it’s even harder to stop their words getting out. But the fact that even guild members primarily (or solely) have access to news via official papers like La Revuo is a reminder that everyone in Espera is living within a tightly controlled net of information, and it’s hard to break out of that when it’s so complete.

Another worldbuilding detail: the calling cards. We’ve known since those early chapters dealing with Ian Crampton’s death that the guilds have ways of “claiming” their kills, and some of that happens internally, with guild administrators confirming assignments to be their work. But some of it happens on the spot, when a field agent leaves a calling card with a body. And on that card will be their pseudonym.

I don’t know if we talked about this earlier in the series. I know that in one of Isabel’s phonecalls with Emma, they do talk about her mother, and the fact that her mother is known as Swallowtail, but I’m not sure that’s a detail I picked out in the readalong. (It’s complete coincidence that the butterfly on the book’s cover is a swallowtail, but I found it pleasing that Judith Ryans is haunting and shaping Isabel’s story even by accident, supplanting her name with her own. There’s some great symbolism there.)

So. Pseudonyms. Reported, as we’ve learned above, in La Revuo, a way of building an agent’s reputation. We learned a little about the department names way back on 27/09, but I didn’t dwell on pseudonyms, because I knew they’d come up later. And now they have. From my notes:

  • All of Comma’s field agents (contract killers) have codenames relating to types of butterfly. These are associated with specific kills and occasionally someone commissioning a hit might ask for a particular agent.
  • The names are not limited to butterflies of the nymphalidae family and some, like Isabel’s butterfly of night / moth,aren’t really butterflies at all.
  • They mostly use abbreviated English names like “Swallowtail”, “Grayling”, “Fritillary”. A few agents use Esperanto names as well, like Isabel, but many species don’t have names in Esperanto. The guild has created some Esperanto species terminology not in use outside the city, primarily for use in its own files (not with civilians).
  • There are not so many contract killers active as to need to use Latin names, but when somebody dies or retires, their name may be reused.

Butterfly of Night was the original title of The Butterfly Assassin, from 2014 through to 2021, when we sold it and began looking for a title that more clearly signalled the book’s genre. It derived from French, actually: the French for Moth is papillon de nuit, a phrase that came up when I was frantically learning a ton of French vocabulary on Memrise right before my A-Level exams. I thought it sounded badass, and combined it with the half-formed ideas I was playing with about an assassin story to give Isabel her nickname.

Isabel hints a few times throughout the trilogy that she earned the nickname in training because she suffered from nightmares and insomnia, and so was often up and about during the night. Is that the whole story? I’m not sure, and I deliberately left it open. It’s certainly all she gives us, but it’s fragmented in a way that suggests there might be more to it. Maybe she just doesn’t like to dwell on it because she doesn’t like thinking about the causes of the nightmares.

Comma’s symbol, on the other side of the card, looks something like this:

A stylised butterfly doodle. The body is a comma, with wings to the right of it. It's drawn in red pen.

(I drew this in 2018, in a rather poor red biro, if you’re wondering why it looks so bloodlike.)

Initially, Isabel had her own symbol, formed of two commas, mirrored, to form the wings of a butterfly. It was hers, left to her by an agent called Marina Stockard, a relative of Isabel’s – a great aunt “or something” (in the fifth draft, “her father’s aunt”), who had become something of a surrogate parent to her. The burn scar on Isabel’s chest roughly resembled this symbol, and was deliberately intended to echo it. I cut this for a wide variety of reasons (not least because having two symbols was unnecessarily complicated), and Marina Stockard went with it.

I’d completely forgotten about her, actually, which means I’d also forgotten that she was the one originally known as the Moth. The symbol went with the name, you see, so when Isabel left the symbol on a body…

“You made the papers,” says Daragh when he wakes Isabel up the next morning. “Not the front page, but you’re in there.”

Isabel frowns. “I didn’t think there was anything remarkable enough about the job to be worth reporting.”

“You mean, aside from the symbol you left on the body?”


He hands her the paper, open to the correct page. It’s a small article, next to the weekly list of kills – the Kill Column, Isabel calls it, although she knows a lot of other agents have their own nicknames for it. The headline leaps out at her: THE MOTH RETURNS?

“It’s what they used to call her,” he says. “Marina Stockard. That’s the agent who left you the mark, right?”

In this draft, the papillon de nuit connection was (somewhat clumsily) spelled out:

Isabel looks at the article again. “Why’d they call her the Moth?”

Daragh sits, crossing his legs. “Well, we’re talking twenty, thirty years back now. She was pretty much retired by the time you were born, and I hardly knew her. Almost all her assignments happened at night, and it became her signature. Comma have never really been night-strikers except when it’s unavoidable, but she made her name with it. The butterfly of night, that’s what they used to call her. And then somebody pointed out that the French papillon de nuit means moth, and I guess the name stuck.”

Though it’s not only in French that moths are given a name like this. In Esperanto it’s noktopapilio, night-butterfly, which of course works much better for this setting, even if it’s not quite as poetic in translation. So while that’s not the in-universe story behind Isabel’s use of the name, it was one story offered for why a field agent might be known as the Moth and not by a more conventional butterfly name.

This chapter ends with Leo bringing news of Emma’s kidnapping. Emma has always been kidnapped, right from the early drafts, but it didn’t always happen now. In many of them, it happened much earlier in the story, and it was in order to raise the ransom to rescue her that Isabel went back into the field and started working for the guild again. Even once the earlier parts of the book had started to look more like they do now, there were still several jobs after Emma’s kidnapping, because in general the pacing was way off.

Leo’s earlier appearances tended to be more angry than scared, too, but the more I learned about him as a character, the more I realised that didn’t work. He cares about Emma – a lot – but he’s not going to accuse Isabel of playing a joke on him by pretending she’s been kidnapped or anything like that, as he did in some of the earlier drafts.

Chapter 31, then, brings us to the question of how to rescue Emma from Isabel’s parents – a detail that has changed somewhat over the years. In some drafts, there’s been a more concerted effort to raise the ransom, with actually finding the money being the main barrier. (In the earliest drafts, of course, it would have been Hummingbird who’d kidnapped her, because the third guild didn’t exist yet.) See, for example, the third draft:

“This is bullshit,” says Toni. “I don’t have this kind of money. You certainly don’t.”

“They want me,” says Isabel. “They’re not expecting us to actually pay. The guilds never do, otherwise they’d pull this kind of stunt more often. They’re trying to give me a reason to walk in there and negotiate with them.”

“Then we’ll have to play this a little differently,” says Ronan. “We can raise the money, but it won’t be immediate.”

“I’ll do it,” says Isabel. “Give me jobs, and I’ll do them. I won’t leave Emma in there any longer than I have to.”

“You’re not cleared for active duty,” says Daragh. “You had four organ transplants, Isabel.”

(Ah, yes, the organs. The organs that she definitely did not take from Nick Larrington. Those organs.) (Okay, it was only Nick in Draft II. In this draft, it was some poor unnamed civilian from Rudston. Sidenote, I actually had to go look at the map to see if Rudston still existed, because I had no memory of that borough. It does, but it’s a Hummingbird borough, so it would be a risky place to target a civilian for organ harvesting purposes.)

In the fifth draft, however, there are other considerations beyond the money:

“That’s not the point,” says Toni. “I know Comma’s not in a great place, financially speaking, but we must be able to raise the money.”

“Our policy is not to pay ransoms,” says Ronan. “If we did, they’d pull this kind of stunt every other week.”

“Fuck the policy,” snaps Toni. “I’ll go and get her myself if I have to. I’m not going to sit around waiting for them to start sending body parts. She’s my daughter.”

“No.” Ronan offers no reasoning, no excuses, just a flat negative.

“You don’t have any authority over me, Ronan Atwood.”

“This… guild, if that’s what they are, want us to send people in,” he says. “That’s why they took a hostage. But there’s no way we can do that safely, and whatever plans we come up with won’t involve you. Have you thought about how much you know? If they tortured you for information—”

“I’d have a cyanide pill between my teeth.” Toni crosses her arms. “I won’t abandon Emma on that basis.”

(And, for the record, in that draft Toni did try to rescue Emma, and did get caught, and did use the cyanide pill rather than let them take her alive.)

Regardless of what happens in between, though, we usually end up with Isabel in the training gym, trying to prepare for a rescue mission – even if in some drafts this involved a much longer period of recovery. And by the time we get to the final draft, the basic outline of Isabel’s motivation is clear: her parents hurt her, and nobody saved her; her parents will not be allowed to hurt Emma, because Isabel will save her.

Michael, however, introduces more questions: was Emma taken because Isabel’s jobs the night before alerted her parents to her survival? After all, they poisoned her, and then she disappeared from view for weeks; they might have assumed she was dead, until she showed up and made the papers and caused them to try another tactic. The timing doesn’t quite add up, and if Isabel were thinking logically, she’d never find that convincing, but she’s upset and emotional and just for a moment, Michael manages to convince her that she’s to blame for this. That killing Nick means she lost all rights to have friends in general, so of course Emma would be taken.

She’ll be dealing with the aftermath of her actions for a while. Even if she manages to rescue Emma, she’s going to have to come clean about it. But in the meantime, we have higher priorities, and a rescue mission to prepare for…

Tomorrow, I’ll be back with our pre-rescue mission scenes, from chapter 32, and then in Monday’s post, we’ll be covering all of chapters 33 to 37. I’m not actually sure how this is going to work yet, and I might end up splitting them, but I’m giving you a heads up so that if you’re reading as we go along, you’re not caught out by the sudden increase in material to read!

And then we will have just a couple more posts to do, and it will be over. Phew. It’s been a journey.

See you tomorrow…

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

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