27/11, Misio–Ofero–Eskapo–Malespero–Postrikolto (TBA Readalong)

Oh boy. We have five chapters to get through in today’s post – the entire climax of The Butterfly Assassin – so I’m going to have to keep things super businesslike and not get too distracted by my notes/past drafts if I want this post to stay under 10k words. Apologies to those who wanted 10k words, but I am not getting paid for this, and have already written 57k in posts for this readalong, so we gotta keep things manageable.

General content warnings that these chapters are pretty violent; some of the excerpts from drafts include descriptions of violence and some of the discussion will focus on it.

First off, a quick summary of what goes down in these chapters / on this day:

On the 27th of November, Isabel and Michael travel to Isabel’s parents’ secret guild, the ransom in tow. Ian Ryans insists on giving them a tour of his new guild, which he’s named Katipo, after the spider Latrodectus katipo.* While showing them around, Ian reveals that Isabel’s poisoning was not entirely intentional – he intended to use her as a hiding place for his poison, but because she ran away, the pellet wasn’t removed in time before the coating broke down and the poison was released. Isabel is, to put it lightly, not particularly happy about this revelation.

Among other projects, one of the things Ian is doing with Katipo is training children, the one thing that Comma forbid him from doing after Cocoon was shut down. Isabel is horrified to encounter the children, and realises that her own safety is meaningless unless her parents are prevented from hurting anyone else. After the tour, Ian reluctantly allows Isabel to see Emma, and accepts the ransom in exchange for her release – if Isabel will stay. Isabel begs Michael to take Emma to safety, which he does, leaving Isabel trapped with her father, who locks her in the cell where Emma was being held.

Eventually, Isabel manages to break out of the cell, planning to save herself and the children her father was training. On her way out, she runs into Mortimer and Emma: Mortimer, who came looking for her just as she’d asked him to, and Emma, who refused to stay outside and safe and insisted on accompanying him. The three go looking for the children, separating to check different rooms. Emma is then threatened by Michael, who has been loyal to Judith Ryans all along, and by extension Ian. Isabel tries to negotiate with him, and when that fails, to fight him, but Michael kills Emma, and sets the lab alight in the struggle that follows. He flees; Mortimer and Isabel rescue the kids and carry Emma’s body to safety. Comma have attacked Katipo in the meantime and they’re forced to fight their way out. Toni Rolleston is killed. Isabel comes face-to-face with her father one last time, and kills him. Then she leaves his guild for the last time.

So I think it’s safe to say that 27th November isn’t a great day for Isabel.

Where do we start with these scenes? A lot has changed in this section of the book. Katipo didn’t originally exist; the earliest drafts involved Hummingbird. By the fifth draft, the third guild and Ian’s insistence on giving Isabel a tour of it had entered the story, but I hadn’t figured out that he was training children. That came in the sixth draft, once I drilled down into his motivations and figured out what he wanted to do that Comma wouldn’t let him do (at which point it became the obvious direction to take things in).

Introducing the children then meant a lot more of Isabel’s emotional arc was resting on these moments – in order to decide to rescue them, she needs to get past the trauma response that says I survived, why shouldn’t they? and reach the point of saying Nobody should have to go through that. Which is what Emma has been trying to tell her for a long time, but she hasn’t really been able to believe it until she sees those kids and realises exactly how young they are – and by extension, how young she was when she started training.

It also gave Isabel a reason to go back into the building after escaping, which meant there was a lot more going on here. Initially, Emma died much more quickly: Michael killed her on Ian’s orders while they were still in the cell, and Isabel was left with her body. Now, of course, Isabel’s escaped the cell long before any of that goes down, and Emma’s death comes in a moment of direct conflict, rather than being over before Isabel’s even had time to process the betrayal. These changes also meant it was Emma’s choice to be in the building at all: she had escaped, and was outside, and went back for Isabel, putting herself in danger. That made her a more active character, rather than one who was simply kidnapped and then killed, but also made the death more dramatic and emotional.

And Michael – Michael’s exact involvement has changed somewhat. Originally, before I introduced the subplot that he is a sad orphan who was taken in by the Ryans’ and basically functions as a surrogate sibling for Isabel, his mother, Angela, was part of the other guild – Hummingbird, first, and then Katipo once it started to exist. His betrayal was thus a fairly simple one, and he’d only ever been on their side. Now, it’s a lot more complicated, tied up in his own feelings; he’s far more loyal to Judith than to Ian, and has been following conflicting orders throughout, juggling them with some of his own feelings.

Oh, and also, Mortimer used to be Angela’s brother and therefore Michael’s estranged uncle. That was a thing. I cut that after the fifth draft and gave Mortimer a proper backstory and set of motivations that weren’t just your classic “surprise! Everyone’s related!”, but it definitely shaped some of those earlier drafts. I can’t even remember what I was trying to achieve with that, to be honest; although it’s referenced frequently in my notes, I still always forget that it was the case until I see it again in the old drafts.

All in all, then, we turned one chapter into about three and set everything up for Optimum Pain and Bonus Character Development.

Given how much of this part of the book wasn’t in the earlier drafts, let’s focus on the part that was: Emma’s death.

Like Nick, Emma has always died. There has never been a version of this book where she survived. There never could have been, because she is the living embodiment of hope and a symbol of Isabel’s life outside the guild, and Isabel has lost both of those things by the end of this book. Therefore Emma could never have survived: if she had, this would have been a different kind of book, and I was always writing a tragedy.

I did think about it, though. Some of the time in edits, I tried to work out if there was any way I could let her live. But the answer was no, if I wanted the rest of the trilogy to work at all; those who’ve read The Hummingbird Killer will know that many of Isabel’s ongoing choices are shaped by grief and guilt over this death, and without that, I would have had to write a different trilogy.

Let’s look at how it went down in the fifth draft:

She takes the key to the rucksack from her jacket pocket and tosses it to her father, forcing him to pick it up from the filthy floor. “You’ve got your ransom,” she says. “We’re leaving now.”

“But I still have so much to show you.”

“I don’t care.” Isabel tries to help Emma up, but she’s not strong enough. There’s no way she’ll get her back to the hospital like this. “Michael, give me a hand,” she says, and he steps forward and lifts Emma in one easy movement.

She makes a choking noise, and coughs blood.

For a second, Isabel can’t understand what she’s seeing, and then she sees the blade protruding from her friend’s chest, held by Michael as he cradles her like a sleeping child.

“No,” she whispers. “No, Michael, what have you done?”

“Isabel,” says Emma, and closes her eyes, and it’s obvious that she’s dead because you can’t be a killer without recognising death in all its forms. But this is far crueller than any Isabel’s worked and it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t make sense.

In the following chapter, she managed to persuade Michael to open up about his motivations, which is when we got to see his alternate backstory, which has significant knock-on effects on the origins of his relationship with Isabel and their backstory together:

She takes three deep breaths, ignoring the stench of the room, and says, “I don’t understand how Angela can be your mother.”

“Oh, come on,” he says. “You really think someone with my level of training would mess up an assignment that badly by accident? I screwed it up because I needed them to chuck me out.”

“That’s not an answer.”

He sighs. “My mother was Hummingbird. My father was Comma.”

For a second, she wonders whether their relationship was anything like the star-crossed romances Emma was reading, and she wants to turn to her friend and joke about it, and then she remembers that Emma’s dead and won’t ever make jokes about trashy romance novels again. But she still isn’t crying, she notices. Is she going to? Does she know how to do that anymore?

“So…” she says.

“Dad won the argument about which guild would train me, which was fine until he died and I was effectively stranded there. They wouldn’t let me see Mum while I was still part of Comma, so I knew it was time to leave. She helped me plan my way out.”

“People died. I nearly died.”

“Yeah, and I saved you. I didn’t want any more collateral damage and I was counting on you to plead for me so that I didn’t end up dead. It worked. You’re very predictable, you know. You should probably work on that.”

“You did all that so you could leave?”

“You should know they’re not fond of letting people walk away.” He shrugs. “Hummingbird was as much my family as Comma. My sister was there – she’s not an agent, she’s just a kid, but she’s family. And of course, you’ve met my mother. I had no reason to stay, but when Toni persuaded the guild to take me in again, I realised I could play both sides.”

Ah yes, Michael’s sister. I can’t really talk about that plotline without giving non-spoilers for The Hummingbird Killer – which is to say, one of the characters in THK used to be Michael’s sister, and isn’t anymore, but I can’t really give any more details than that without some actual spoilers for things that do happen in the book, so, uh, ask me about that one in DMs if you’ve read THK, I guess.

By the time I was editing the book in 2020, I was trying to rework Emma’s death scene to be more drawn-out and emotional, but I was having some trouble with the exact logistics of lifting somebody up and stabbing them at the same time. I ended up asking one of my housemates (it was lockdown, after all) if she would come and be a body for me, so that I could figure out where everybody’s arms were going, a request she took very well. (I repaid this assistance by dedicating The Hummingbird Killer to my 2019-20 housemates.)

But notwithstanding my efforts to resolve the limb logistics, I ended up changing how it went down entirely, as well as moving the entire encounter to the lab – a chance to force Isabel to face her nightmares and flashbacks by putting her in a location that reminds her of her childhood, adding an extra layer to her suffering in this scene. This also meant it was much easier to subsequently set things on fire, and I made sure to painstakingly research the best way of doing this by going into the STEM channel of the grad student Discord server I was in at the time and asking, “Hey, how would you accidentally set a lab on fire?”

(They gave me a wide range of crucial information, from which chemicals shouldn’t be stored together to how sprinklers and other safety precautions work to the materials used for lab work surfaces to which way doors in labs typically open. I have subsequently forgotten all of it, but anything that needed to be in the book ended up in it, so that’s fine. Thank you, STEM nerds.)

Discord messages from Finn, dated 18/06/2021:

hello would any science people be able to help me with writing a Dramatic Scene in this book? i am trying to make Big Fire. the characters are in a chemistry lab (with gas taps etc) and there is at least one gunshot so it feels like this would not be difficult, but i'd love some ideas of the most realistic way to make Chaos, ideally by accident. what are some things that would start fires in this kind of setting? presumably since our school labs didn't automatically go up in flames whenever somebody lit a match, just leaving a gas tap on wouldn't be enough to start a fire?
one bullet goes into a person, but there could be a second gunshot, which might hit something important, perhaps? (this scene previously took place outside of a lab, and the fire was deliberately started, so the fact that i've moved it and changed the cause is requiring Thought)

By October 2020, then, this scene had almost achieved its final form – children, Michael, gunshot, fire – except that the fire was set deliberately. This change happened because I realised Michael is too scared of Ian and Judith Ryans to risk pissing them off by damaging their guild on purpose — and, most importantly, he is not actually trying to kill Isabel, since her parents want her alive. Moreover, once I moved this scene to the lab, it made even less sense for him to start the fire on purpose, because the chance of it reaching the gas supply and leaving nothing but a smouldering crater was too high — his self-preservation instincts aren’t the best, but he’s not going to take that kind of risk. But to do it by accident… yes, that worked, that made it his fault while not introducing the gaping plot hole of incoherent motivations.

It turns out, you see, that the answer to, “Why would he do this?” cannot solely be, “Because he’s a melodramatic edgelord,” which was, in fact, the only defence I had to offer for this scene:

“Rule one,” says Michael. “Don’t get attached to someone who can’t look after themselves.”

She looks back at him and her rage sets her alight. She would burn herself alive if there was a chance the blaze would kill him too. She has to force the words out through gritted teeth: “I’ll kill you.”

But when she reaches for a weapon, she finds none.

Michael pushes himself onto his knees, onto his feet, clinging to the wall. His face is still twisted with pain, but he gives her a cruel smile as he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small silver lighter.

“Good luck playing the Pied Piper,” he says, and flicks it alight, dropping the flame onto the carpet.

He must have planned this. Must have soaked half the room in alcohol. The fire sheets up instantly, hiding him from view, and she doesn’t have to chase after him to know that he’ll be long gone before she even gets to the door.

So she stays where she is: motionless, Emma’s body in her lap, waiting for this room to become their funeral pyre and burn them into ash the colour of grief.

Funny how actually thinking about your characters’ motivations can make your book better, who knew.

Anyway, all of that brings us to the fight in the lobby, and Isabel trying to get the children out – including one particularly young redhaired girl whom you should definitely remember because she’s going to come up again elsewhere in the trilogy – and Toni Rolleston’s death. As I mentioned a few posts ago, Toni originally died earlier in the story, off-screen, during an attempt to rescue Emma herself. By shifting her death to here, though, I gave her a chance to redeem herself: she risks herself to help save a child who should never have been in guild training, the way she didn’t save Isabel. And she dies. But the girl gets out.

I love mirrors, I love doubles, I love circularity. This whole section of the book is about events coming full circle and cycles of harm being broken or altered: the guild who didn’t help Isabel earlier does come back for her here, the people who failed her try to help her, Isabel tries to break the cycle for the next generation so that they don’t have to suffer the way she did. Things change in this moment, and that temporary break in the violent cycles that have trapped Isabel up to this point set her up for the next misbelief that’s going to cause her trouble: there is safety in the guild. (Because as we’ll see in The Hummingbird Killer, there is not.)

And, as such, this also needed to be the moment when Isabel came face-to-face with her father again. First she shoots him in the kneecap, and then she kills him.

She didn’t always kill him. As late as the fifth draft, she couldn’t bring herself to do it; even in the notes I wrote during Author Mentor Match, the climax of the ‘revenge tragedy’ elements of the book were only achieved by proxy:

Michael is a foil for Isabel, but to her, he represents her father. She fails to kill her father when she has the chance, but she does kill Michael. It’s the conclusion of that previous confrontation, but only by proxy, as Isabel can never be truly free of her father – only of versions of him. BAM, LITERARY SYMBOLISM. Put THAT in your essay and analyse it.

So the end of the road isn’t Isabel failing to kill her father, it’s Isabel killing Michael, who is

  • a foil for herself, under her father’s control, and therefore symbolic of her breaking out of that, and
  • a double for her father, whom she couldn’t bring herself to kill when she had the chance, and therefore a symbol of how she’ll never be truly free of him but can rid herself of his proxies, and
  • the mechanism through which Isabel’s final symbol of safety (Emma) was lost, making revenge her only (empty) way of responding to that.

By the sixth draft, though, I’d realised that proxies weren’t enough, and I needed to permanently take Ian Ryans out of the picture, and let Isabel be the one to do it.

I deliberated hard before changing this, because I don’t believe in revenge, and I don’t think you break a cycle of violence with more violence. I didn’t want to seem like I was endorsing it as a way of solving problems – a lot of the time, it just makes more of them. But I understand Isabel’s logic here: she knows as well as anyone else does that killing Ian won’t undo anything that’s been done to her, but having just rescued those other children from him, knows that to prevent this cycle from perpetuation, she needs to remove him from the picture. And, well, she’s not wrong, exactly, because she’s trapped in a system where there is no other justice and no other safety.

I think Isabel wants some other form of justice. She doesn’t want the responsibility for ending this: she wants her parents to be held accountable by a third party, and forced to make amends. But she knows it won’t happen, because Ronan told her as much. And she is not at the point in her character arc where she can prioritise her own desire not to be judge, jury and executioner over the fact that if she doesn’t do this, nothing will change and nobody will be saved. Killing her father means being what her father made her, but it’s the only way to stop him doing the same to others.

By changing this, then, I wasn’t endorsing this action as the right thing to do – I really don’t think there is a right thing to do in Isabel’s position – but acknowledging that given Isabel’s current state of mind and her other options for justice, it didn’t feel realistic that she would ever have done anything else. For starters, she would need to value herself and see herself as something other than a killer to take any action that doesn’t involve, well, killing someone. And she’s a long way off reaching that point.

That’s not to say the versions of this book where Isabel didn’t kill him involved leaving Ian unharmed. From the fifth draft:

“You should have kept your mouth shut,” she tells him again, and fires a single shot at his leg.

It hits him in the kneecap, and he screams, and Isabel turns and walks towards that square of daylight. Her father calls out, triumphant despite his gasps of pain: “I knew you wouldn’t kill me.”

Isabel looks back, smiles, and fires a second shot into the other leg. “Death’s too good for you, father dearest,” she says. “But you’ll rot in hell soon enough.”

He’s still screaming as she drops the gun on the bloodstained floor and walks out into the bright winter air.

(One of these days I will publish a book where nobody gets kneecapped. But both The Butterfly Assassin and The Hummingbird Killer contain Graphic Violence Against Kneecaps, so apparently it is not this day. I don’t know if this is a sign of some deep-rooted psychological issue about knees, or if it’s simply a very practical place to shoot somebody if you don’t want them to run away but also don’t plan for them to die immediately, but it sure is a thing I keep writing about, for some reason.)  

All in all, the climax of this book offers us a pyrrhic victory. Isabel achieves her initial goal of escaping her parents’ control – but only at the cost of Emma, and only by ending up back in the hands of the guild. She’s permanently eliminated the threat posed by her father, but only by becoming the person he spent years moulding her into. She may have helped the children escape, but we’ll see as the trilogy continues that there’s a lot more to do before the systems that traumatised her are actually changed for good. And while Katipo has been destroyed, the damage it’s done – including to Isabel herself – can’t be undone.

And all the while, Michael is still in the wind, and Judith is nowhere to be seen…

Reviewers seem quite torn on this climax. This partly depends whether they’re here to cry or whether they actually wanted Isabel to succeed at living a normal life with a normal friend – some people are furious that I killed Emma, and not in a complimentary “I hate you for making me feel things” way, but in the “This isn’t the story I thought I was signing up for” way. That’s fine; you can’t please everyone. I always knew what story I was telling, and it always led us here.

I think reactions also vary depending on how people felt about Michael. One of the things that changed a lot in the late drafts is how much effort I put into making him seem sympathetic and building a rapport between him and Isabel, even if it’s a rapport largely based on shared traumatic backstory. In earlier drafts, there was less of that going on, so his betrayal didn’t hit nearly as hard.

At the same time, I’ve been foreshadowing it all along – for example, Isabel mistaking Michael for her father when she’s lost in a flashback at Grace’s lab, because he’s functioning as Ian-by-proxy all along. And he’s Isabel’s double, but just as Emma is the double who was never taken by Comma in the first place, Michael is the double who never got out. If his betrayal wasn’t a surprise to you, that’s fine; it means you caught the clues I was seeding in. I never intended it to rest solely on a “surprise! Plot twist!” setup, but to work equally well as a “I know something the protagonist doesn’t and I can’t stop her from making bad choices” kind of plotline. (I’m a chronic re-reader, so I like books to work even when you know where they’re going.) But at the same time, I think there are layers to it that hit harder when they’re a shock.

Still, it’s divisive, and not just because some readers didn’t realise this was the start of a trilogy and didn’t realise I would be making things worse rather than wrapping them up. So I’m curious how you all felt about it, and about any other thoughts you have on these chapters. I feel I had to rush through them quite quickly, since so much happens in one day (this post is already over 4k long, so imagine how bad it would’ve been if I hadn’t tried so hard to restrain myself); I’ve inevitably missed some really interesting detail that I’ll be sad not to have discussed. Which means it’s your job to spot those details, and ask me about them!

We have just two posts left in this readalong series, each covering half of chapter 38. And then we’ll be done, and I will finally be able to blog about something else. I will miss it, and I will also be deeply relieved. Perhaps youse feel the same…

*Sidenote: this spider takes its scientific Latin name from a Māori term for the spider, katipō. According to Wikipedia, this name derives from the Māori words “kakati” (to sting) and “pō” (night), thus meaning night-stinger, due to a belief that the spider bites at night. This would be an interesting symbolic counterpoint to Isabel as the Moth, if it were intentional. As a matter of fact, I was entirely unfamiliar with the Māori roots of the name, having encountered it via a more general discussion of the Latrodectus family and taken the Latin name without exploring its etymology. I certainly had no intention of co-opting an Indigenous term to use for an evil organisation, though I may inadvertently have done so. I realised once this was pointed out that my choice of name may be hurtful, belonging as it does to a wider trend of white authors treating Indigenous and minoritised languages as fodder for fantasy without considering the impact on speakers of those languages. I hope that the Latinised spelling of the name makes it clear that I was drawing from the scientific term, but I apologise for my lack of further research here. Within the universe of the book, I can only attribute the use of this name to Ian Ryans being exactly the sort of person to co-opt whatever terminology he wanted for whatever purposes he wanted to use it for, with absolutely no regard for the impact of his actions on anybody at all, because he is a prick.

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

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