28/09, Helpo–Historio–Rekuniĝo–Ĉifro (TBA Readalong)

We’re reading The Butterfly Assassin in real time! Just joining us? For an explanation of this project, see TBA Readalong Starts This Sunday; to start at the beginning, jump to 17/09, Eraro.

On Friday 28th September, Isabel goes in search of Grace Whittock for help with an antidote, but Grace is absent. Instead she finds Emma, and admits to her that she’s sick. Emma invites her to come home with her after school so that she doesn’t have to be alone processing this news, and Isabel goes – only to discover that Emma’s foster mother is Toni Rolleston, one of the Comma agents who led Cocoon and helped train Isabel. The confrontation is tense, and results in Toni’s identity being revealed to Emma, who didn’t know about her mother’s connection with Comma. Isabel storms out, has a bit of a breakdown, gets home, and finds Michael Griffiths in her flat.

Michael was another product of Cocoon, slightly older than Isabel, and saved her life when she was fifteen and got stabbed on a job gone wrong. However, it was partially his fault that the job went wrong in the first place. Comma considered kicking him out, but in the end, he was taken in by Ian and Judith Ryans and lived with them and Isabel. Isabel sees him as something like a brother, but has always kept her distance from him emotionally, knowing that their parents would have used affection against them. Michael confirms that Isabel’s father did in fact poison her and drug her to forget about it, and reveals that her parents have defected to form their own guild – leaving Michael behind.

When Michael mentions that the only hint to saving Isabel from the poison might be in Ian’s files, which Comma have confiscated, Isabel retrieves the documents that Ronan gave her, and resolves to decode them. Michael offers to help, but Isabel would prefer to handle this herself. He gives her his number, and they part as allies.

Whew, that’s a lot of plot to get through in one blog post. Two previously-mentioned characters (Toni and Michael) make their first on-page appearances, we get way more insight into Isabel’s backstory, and we also learn a bit about Emma’s upbringing – but it’s looking like their friendship might not survive Toni’s involvement.

Let’s have a look at Chapter 12 first: Isabel’s reunion with Toni.

I have to admit, of all the chapters in the book and all the angst that Isabel experiences, this is the chapter that gets me. When I first listened to the book as an audiobook, and therefore was able to experience it as a piece of fiction rather than something I was supposed to be editing and improving, this chapter nearly made me cry.

I think the reason it gets me is that Toni – whom Isabel holds responsible for a lot of what she’s been through, including the job that nearly killed her and Michael – acknowledges, out loud, that Isabel’s upbringing was messed up. That somebody should’ve helped; that she was failed by the people who were meant to protect her; that she could have been something else if given that chance.

And that’s the bit that really gets me: the idea that Emma and Isabel were once alike, but Emma was loved, and Isabel wasn’t and now Emma is colour and sunshine and mischief and an outstretched hand, […] hope in human form, and Isabel is broken glass and barbed wire and a knife clutched in bloody fingers.

It would be safe to say that I’m interested in doubles and narrative foils. I wrote my A-Level English coursework essay about doubles and dissociation in The Bell Jar and The Dream Life of Sukhanov: how the characters see themselves in others, fail to recognise themselves in mirrors, are mistaken for other people, watch their lives branch into different possibilities, are replaced and imitated.

Since then, it’s a topic I keep returning to, both in fiction and in academic works. I’m fascinated by narrative foils who end up confronting each other, and those who represent another path the character could have taken, and those who are acknowledged within the narrative as somebody’s double or mirror but denied the chance to share their fate.

I would argue that both Emma and Michael are foils for Isabel, in different ways. Emma is what Isabel could have become, if somebody had loved her and looked after her instead. If Toni had saved her, instead. We see it in her: the way she loves art even though she doesn’t understand it, craving colour and expression that she’s always been denied. She may not permit herself attachment to many people, but when she cares, Isabel is all in for her friends. Some of that she learned from Emma. But some of it, I think, was always part of her, and never given a chance to grow before.

This moment with Toni is also key to one of the ethical questions of the series: to what extent is an individual culpable for the crimes of an organisation they work for? Toni involved herself with Cocoon because she thought she could make it better, keep it from being ‘completely evil’; instead, she became the tool used to hurt Isabel. Over the course of the trilogy, we come back to this question: is there a way to work for Comma without being complicit in their atrocities?

We may not, in our everyday lives, be forced to ask ourselves whether we want to work for a guild of assassins or not, but the parallels aren’t difficult to draw. Many of my more scientifically-minded friends have had to consider whether they want to work for companies involved in the arms industry, in weapons development, in military intelligence, in the fossil fuel industry. They have little use for experts in medieval Irish literature, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to avoid the question. Every day we are made complicit in the crimes of corporations in small ways: our banks investing in arms or oil, our taxes funding military investment, and so on and so forth.

Toni became complicit in Comma’s child abuse, despite her good intentions. Was there a way she could have done otherwise? I don’t know. I don’t think books are supposed to give you all of the answers, and I think stories are less interesting if those answers are obvious. But the difference between Toni and the rest of this Comma, in this moment, is that she looks at Isabel and says: I’m sorry. We failed you.

And in doing so, and in drawing the parallel between Isabel and Emma, she denies Isabel the small comfort of believing she would always have been like this and there was never any other path open to her. She means well, but acknowledging the trauma in that way forces Isabel to acknowledge it, and I don’t think, at this point in the book, that Isabel is ready to.

A version of this scene has always existed – which is to say, Emma has always brought Isabel home to her house, and Isabel has always run into Toni Rolleston there, and Toni’s identity has always been revealed to Emma. In the first draft, the impact of this moment was weak. Toni and Isabel had less of a direct connection, and Toni’s identity was immediately revealed to Emma, rather than discovered by accident; there was little to no exploration of Isabel’s trauma.

A woman comes out of the living room and stares at Isabel. She stares right back.

“Well, well, well,” she says. “Isabel Ryans. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Toni Rolleston,” she responds. “I could say the same for you.”

Emma stares at them both. “Wait, you two know each other?”

“Indirectly,” says her foster mum.

“I guess she never told you that she works for Comma,’” says Isabel.


“I don’t work for them anymore, Isabel, you know that. I left years ago.”

“Before or after fostering me?” says Emma, clearly outraged, and then something occurs to her. “Wait, hold that for a second. How do you know?” she demands of Isabel.

It actually took until Draft VI – the AMM rewrite/overhaul – for this scene to start looking like it does now, and for all my favourite parts (i.e. directly contrasting the young Isabel and Emma) to enter the picture. I think this scene needed me to have developed a more nuanced understanding of trauma before I could write it, as well as to have thought more about the secondary characters and their backstories, treating each of them as if this was their own story and figuring out what they wanted.

When I really want to cry about this (and believe me, I am always crying about my own characters), I like to imagine a story with alternating chapters: Isabel and Emma, c. 2021-22. Emma, ten, recently fostered by Toni and still processing the trauma of abandonment by her parents and a string of unsuccessful placements; Isabel, nine and then ten, in the first year of Cocoon. Toni spending the day working with Isabel and then going home to Emma at night. And the contrast there – the care vs the hurt, the healing vs the damage – makes me sad, because it was happening at the same time, and by the same person.

Because that’s the other point I’m trying to make in this trilogy, really. That people are not Good or Bad, inherently. That people can do great harm, and still have the capacity to do good; that people can do good, and still have it in them to harm. Toni helped Emma, and she hurt Isabel, and those are both true statements and they are both crucial parts of her character. Is Toni a good person or a bad person? No. There is no answer to that question and there isn’t supposed to be.

And there’s Michael. Three years older than Isabel, so he’s twenty here. He was fifteen when he was recruited into Comma following his mother’s untimely death, so he had a little more time to grow up beforehand than Isabel did, but fundamentally, he was another child destroyed by the guild. A fellow survivor – not just of Cocoon, but of their parents, even if Isabel bore the brunt of their abusive behaviour.

The reunion with Michael came much, much later in the early drafts. In the first draft, she encountered him while recovering in the hospital, and once she had already done an assignment for Comma (this specific assignment got cut in later drafts):

“Mind if I join you?” he says.

She sighs. “If you must.”

There’s a creaking sound as somebody lowers themselves onto the weights bench next to her. She lowers the weights and sneaks a peek through barely-opened eyes. The young man is probably five or six years older than her, but something about him is vaguely familiar.

“Michael,” he says, seeing her looking at him. “Remember me? Of course, you probably don’t.”

Slowly, memories start to come back: an older boy putting pressure on her wound after she was stabbed in the assignment that went wrong; pleading for his life when Comma wanted him dead for failing the assignment… “You saved my life,” she says.

“And you saved mine. So I guess we’re even.”

By the fourth draft, Michael had been spying on Isabel for Comma earlier in the book and she’d caught sight of him once or twice, but they only ran into each other once she was already in hospital, as before, although a little earlier in the process. The same was true in the fifth draft, and it was once again only in the sixth draft, the AMM rewrite, that he entered the book at this point and became one of Isabel’s allies and a more significant character.

A big part of the decision to introduce Michael earlier and allow the reader to get to know him more was, as I already mentioned, to an increased focus at this point in the motivations and intentions of secondary characters. In developing these, I found the book Story Genius by Lisa Cron to be helpful, although I have to say I did not vibe with that book’s writing style. The content, however, helped immeasurably in my quest to create secondary characters who weren’t just props for the plot.

I wrote a lot of notes about Michael, exploring his backstory and his relationship with Isabel in far more depth:

To Isabel, Michael is a reminder of her parents and her training, which is a negative. She may initially find his presence triggering and she’s definitely not going to trust him. But he also has shared experiences with her that nobody else has – he gets her.

A lot of these notes focus on his role as a foil for Isabel, but also on the way he represents her father, Cocoon, and everything she’s running from – more on that later. Despite all these intensely detailed notes full of symbolism, however, there were some things I never did figure out about him:

Interests: ??? that would require him to not be a brainwashed screwed-up assassin boy 
Playing cards, I guess?
Surely you have some interests, Michael, please talk to me a little here.

As a result, there are whole aspects of Michael’s character that bear no resemblance to Drafts I-V, and everything important about him showed up in Draft VI. Even the white streak of hair behind his ear, which we share; I gave him this small aspect of my own appearance because I was hastily trying to construct a physical description due to a lack of these in the earlier drafts (I am not a big one for describing people).  

I like the Michael we meet in this chapter, although he’s a deeply flawed individual, and his cowardice has, in the past, left Isabel open to her parents’ abuse. But what she starts to realise here, and what we as the reader are learning with her, is that Michael is also deeply traumatised, and the two of them are alike in that way. This Michael is a lot more interesting than the Michaels of the early drafts, and it’s hard not to root for him at least a little bit, despite Isabel’s complicated feelings towards him.

But he can’t, in this moment, help Isabel, and she’s left with the knowledge that her father poisoned her and a pile of documents she doesn’t yet know how to decode.

So, before we dig deeper into those codes (it’ll be a shorter post tomorrow, I hope), let’s stop there for a minute and discuss these chapters. There’s a lot going on with these two unexpected reunions; which one had a bigger impact on you, as a reader? Do you believe Toni when she says that she’s sorry? Are you rooting for Michael, or suspicious of him?

As always, leave the answers to these questions or anything else you might want to say in the comments below, and I’ll see you tomorrow for the rest of Chapter 14.


  1. Chalkletters says:

    The doubling moment between Emma and Isabel was particularly striking after what you wrote yesterday, about how she’s trying to transform herself into a woman, rather than just a weapon.

    I think the Toni reunion had the bigger impact on me as a reader, for a lot of the reasons you talk about here, the way she was caring for three children, but hurting at least one other, possibly more.

    • Finn Longman says:

      Ah, that’s really interesting – my own writing of these posts is a bit disjointed, so I don’t always see the connections from one to another, but that’s a good point. Thinking about Emma being canonically trans in the early drafts adds a layer there, too: Emma was given the support to become who she is, and Isabel was shaped to somebody else’s agenda. Obviously, that’s no longer canon, but it definitely always affects how I read Emma.

      And yeah, one thing I was thinking about earlier is how I never confirmed anywhere in the trilogy how many kids were involved in Cocoon. We know about Isabel and Michael, and Toni references “a couple of older kids” being recruited instead of Emma, but the project was larger than that. Isabel sometimes speculates about the fate of the other trainees, but there’s nothing concrete and I confess it’s not something I’ve ever pinned down in my own head, either. So I don’t know the full extent of Toni’s impact, but it certainly wasn’t only Isabel she hurt.

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

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