26/11, Promeso (TBA Readalong)

We are so close to the end of this, guys. Today’s readalong post is a reasonably short one, covering only chapter 32, but tomorrow is a bumper edition, so get ready for that. Might end up being the longest post I’ve written on this blog, which would be saying something, because I have no self control when it comes to wordcount.

I’m actually not sure where to start with this chapter. Nearly everything I might want to comment on is something that’s on the page, rather than off it – and I want the words on the page to speak for themselves, so I’m wary of over-explaining them. Perhaps I should start with what wasn’t always there: this moment where Ronan almost seems sympathetic in the face of Isabel’s trauma, when she realises that the only way to rescue Emma is to put herself back in her parents’ power and trust the guild to get her out, and her backup plan, relying on Mortimer for help. Which is to say, basically the entire chapter.

This scene is one that was particularly affected by following some of the ideas and exercises in the book Story Genius by Lisa Cron. Although I didn’t follow any of the exercises to the letter (I found it a little too prescriptive, especially when working with a book I’d already written), the basic outlines were useful for emotional turning points like this – moments when characters needed to make a crucial decision.

Story Genius talks about characters having a ‘misbelief’ which drives their actions: something they’ve internalised that causes them to make certain decisions, until they eventually realise, as part of their character arc, that it’s not true and they need to do something differently. (I am paraphrasing wildly; you may want to read the book if character motivations are a focus for you.) In my notes, then, I have this about Isabel/this scene:

Isabel’s initial misbelief is that she can be safe if she leaves the guild and her father, which she’s rationalised / realised as “go to school”. By the end she realises that her father is not synonymous with the guild, and that in order to be safe she needs the guild’s help to destroy / escape him.

  • This sets her up for b2’s misbelief: that the guild is safe and that nobody can hurt the Moth, so while it’s truer than her initial belief, it’s still not the end of her arc. [book 2 and 3 spoilers redacted]
  • So while b1 is a complete arc re: overcoming her childhood trauma and walking away from her parents, it’s not the end of her arc as a person.

Isabel’s aha! moment begins when she puts herself back in her father’s power and trusts the guild / Ronan to get her out. That’s her realising that her father ≠ the guild, and that it was her father she was running from. Here, she’s literally putting her safety in Ronan’s hands, which takes considerable courage considering that what she’s asking of the guild (“get me away from my parents”) is what they have already failed to do when she was younger.

  • This moment was already there (esp. with Ronan reminding her that it’s temporary), but needs to be more emotional; we need to not see her fully trusting the guild up until that point, and resisting them for much longer than she does in the current draft.

It was therefore only in the sixth draft that we really dug into those emotional undercurrents in this scene. Previously, the question of relying on the guild to help Emma was already settled, and tied up with the question of whether Isabel would work for the guild at all; now, the latter ship has sailed, but that doesn’t mean she trusts them, and this moment is important. If she’s going to put herself back in her father’s power, she needs to have somebody she trusts to get her out again.

And that person isn’t Ronan. If it was, she wouldn’t call Mortimer later in the chapter, and set up contingency plans.

Let’s jump back to before I figured out that this was an emotional pinch point, though – to the fifth draft, when the main issue at this point in the story was practicalities. We had more characters involved (there were a lot more secondary characters in the early drafts in general, but they weren’t contributing much, so a lot of them got cut), but far fewer feelings:

“We have to look like we’re rising to their bait. We send Isabel in with the ransom, alone. I’ve also been wondering whether we ought to send her with her father’s poison – the sample and the formula – as a goodwill offering.”

Isabel shudders at the thought of being anywhere near the poison that almost destroyed her. “I know they sent the ransom note to me,” she begins, feeling like there’s a rock in her throat, “but my parents are there, and I don’t think I can face them by myself.”

Ronan looks at her for a moment, and then says, “Okay.” He writes ransom on the whiteboard, and adds Isabel’s name next to it. “We won’t make you go alone, but we need to think carefully about who we send.”

“Mortimer,” she suggests immediately.

“He’s a civilian.”

“Which means they won’t see him as a threat.”

“We have no authority to send him in there.”

“Better to send someone who can defend themselves,” says Kathy. “Are there any agents you’d trust to go with you?”

Isabel has an extremely small pool of options. “Michael, then,” she says.

Ronan adds Michael’s name to the board. “Fine. The two of you will go there and seem to cooperate. Whatever they ask, you do it. You hand over the ransom, act like you’re surrendering, and bargain for Emma’s release. Make them think you’re not a threat.”

“They’ll probably try and recruit you,” says Kieran. “Pretend to go along with it, if that’s what it takes to get your friend out.”

Pretend to put herself back in her parents’ power. Isabel feels sick, but if it’ll save Emma… “And then what?”

(Those who’ve read The Hummingbird Killer will recognise Kieran. He’s now only present for a couple of sentences in The Butterfly Assassin, and it’s easy to overlook him entirely, but he used to have a more significant role here.)

The Ronan in the finished version of this chapter is an interesting one – one who seems, almost, to respect Isabel’s autonomy as an individual. That’s not a Ronan we see very often, and while he attributes this to Daragh’s influence, there’s a chance this is all just another game that he’s playing. He knows that if he offers Isabel a choice, she’ll agree to do it; if he doesn’t, she’s more likely to disobey.

But Isabel – well, the Isabel we see here is an Isabel we met much earlier in the book, reaching desperately for those grounding techniques Emma taught her: five things you can see…

We also get a small worldbuilding detail at this point in the book: the idea that there are guild courts, to prosecute individuals for crimes that cause harm to the guilds they’re a member of, such as defecting to form their own organisation. These are separate from civilian courts, which try individuals for more general crimes. Ian and Judith Ryans can’t be tried in a civilian court – or even a guild court – for abusing Isabel, because that would mean talking about Cocoon, which is still top-secret; Comma are not willing to admit to its existence. As such, they can only be prosecuted for their actions against Comma.

This means that there is very little hope for Isabel that they will be brought to justice for their treatment of her – it will always be brushed under a carpet of secrecy. In the absence of justice, her only hope is vengeance, and Ronan, noncommittally, acknowledges that, as he has done since a much earlier draft. From the fifth draft:

“Well, then, I should probably warn you that unless somebody is there to stop me, I might kill them.”

“I would prefer it if you didn’t,” says Ronan evenly. “But once the attack begins, I understand that things may happen that are outside of my control.”

Which is almost like permission.

And then Mortimer.

Mortimer has always been involved in the ending of this book, but his presence was a little… random, until I realised I needed to show Isabel actually setting him up to help her. It’s the perfect opportunity to display his priorities. Mortimer will have read the newspapers. He knows about Oliver Roe and Nick Larrington, and he’s astute enough to connect them to Isabel. But the first thing he asks is not, How could you?, and he doesn’t hang up on her in disgust.

He asks, Are you safe?

And this is why Isabel called him. Gambling on the idea that his protective instincts might, in the end, apply to her too. But she can’t let herself look at that idea straight-on, so she pretends that she’s calling him only for Emma’s sake, because he’s friends with Leo, and Leo cares about Emma, and therefore by extension he should care. It’s much easier to ask for a favour if she pretends it’s not for her.

Mortimer sees through her, though. And he offers his help, because of course he does.

This chapter, then, has improved vastly since I realised that it needed to be a turning point in Isabel’s emotional arc: putting herself back in her father’s power, relying on the guild for help… but not only on them. Realising that she has allies outside the guild, too, who can help her when Comma fail – that is so important, considering she started this book believing the only person she could trust was herself. And it sets us up quite nicely for our climax, and the question of whether Isabel was right to put her trust in those people.

Which will be tomorrow’s post(s). So in the meantime, tell me how you’re feeling about this chapter. Do you trust Ronan to get Isabel out? Do you believe that he genuinely cares about her autonomy here? What about Mortimer – do you think Isabel was right to call him, knowing there was a risk he’d never want to speak to her again after Nick and Oliver?

Leave your thoughts in the comments, and I’ll be back tomorrow for chapters 33-37.


  1. Chalkletters says:

    This chapter was amazing — my second favourite so far (after whatever chapter it was that I previously said was my favourite so far). It just worked structurally on so many levels: Ronan and the poisoned child and Emma’s panic-attack technique and Mortimer.

    I believe Ronan will TRY to get Isabel out. I don’t necessarily trust that it will be his top priority, but I don’t think he’s going to double-cross her. That said, I could be wrong, there’s enough doubt there to make it exciting.

    On the whole, I think it was smart to call Mortimer but, again, not uncomplicatedly so.

    Also, Story Genius sounds interesting, I’ve added it to my very long list of writing books I might one day read even though I don’t do (any) very much writing anymore.

    • Finn Longman says:

      Story Genius is definitely super useful for developing character arcs and motivations. Disclaimer: I found the writing style INTENSELY annoying and therefore resented it for being so useful because I didn’t enjoy reading it 😅 So I recommend it, but always with the caveat that you have to endure the phrase “Here’s the skinny” way more times than anyone should have to.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed this chapter. I definitely think it’s one where all the work I put in to give the book a proper structure and clear arcs and stuff really pays off, but of course, I’m biased, so I can’t always tell if that’s coming across. I’m glad it sounds like it is.

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

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