Welcome back to our readalong of The Butterfly Assassin! It’s a weird dark time in the world right now, and with the winter drawing in, the darkness is literal as well as metaphorical. I’m wrapping up my line edits for book three, Moth to a Flame, and finding it a strangely heavy experience to be working on a book about breaking cycles of violence and reimagining the future, while living in a world where those cycles seem to be spinning tighter by the day.
But today’s post is a slightly lighter one, which comes as something of a relief. We’re reading chapter 26, Korinklino – affection. In this chapter, Isabel has a conversation with Emma for the first time since she ended up in hospital and in the hands of Comma. Emma informs Isabel that she missed Emma’s birthday (it was on the 22nd, as I noted here), and they talk about terrible Esperan romance novels. Emma also challenges Isabel some of her long-held beliefs about herself, and what she deserves – notably, her not-quite-articulated assumption that she in some way deserves the pain she’s experienced, because of the harm she has helped to cause. (Never mind that that wasn’t exactly a free choice on her part, either.)
I’ve talked already about how important it is to me that Isabel is not perfect, and the fact that she still deserves better despite not being “innocent”. Questions of innocence and safety feel particularly pertinent at the moment, when harm is being articulated in terms of innocent women and children being killed – as though there are not also innocent men, and as though innocence is a prerequisite for life. I’ve been thinking a lot about that latter point, and how it relates to the concept of grievability, which I brought up earlier in the readalong. We are so ready to put lives into boxes: these are worth saving, and would be mourned if lost; these are acceptable collateral.
This is something I have been grappling with across this trilogy. It is, as limited 3rd-person narratives are wont to be, distinctly biased towards Isabel, its protagonist; her life is worth preserving, and therefore the choices she makes in the pursuit of survival can be justified. But I often find myself thinking of the unmourned characters in the background: unnamed, irrelevant, and just as dead.
This chapter isn’t dealing directly with those questions. But it does explore innocence, and what it means to have done harm. And in doing so, it touches on an idea that underpins much of the trilogy: that not being innocent does not equate to being undeserving of life, or safety, or even happiness. Emma tells Isabel she deserved better, and Isabel, at this stage in her life, cannot meaningfully believe her. It’s important that it was said, anyway, even if she wasn’t able to accept it. Sometimes the saying it is the part that matters.
As part of that conversation, we get to learn yet more about Isabel’s past, and about her relationship with her mother – mostly a sidenote in this book, compared to the immediate threat of her father’s influence – and all the ways Isabel has been taught to doubt her experience and downplay her own suffering. Which is pretty bleak and hardgoing, even with Emma there to immediately counter it with her affection, so central to this chapter.
We could probably dwell on that for a long time. But let’s not, because I promised you a lighter post. Let’s talk, instead, about the Worst Romance Novels of Espera.
I worry, on occasion, that those who read this book without knowing anything about my own reading habits will assume that this gentle mockery of a certain subtype of genre romance is because I don’t respect romance as a category. Many people don’t; it’s often derided, considered “trashy”, or otherwise overlooked despite more or less keeping large sections of publishing afloat. However, I want to stress that that is absolutely not how I feel about it: I read a significant amount of genre romance, mostly queer historicals (though I’ve been branching out lately), and have immense respect for romance authors.
It’s one of the reasons I’ve made a point of having other characters point out that a) these are very much the worst romance novels of Espera, and good ones do in fact exist, and b) even these, while vaguely horrifying in their premises, are not automatically badly written. We see this more in book two, when they come up again (truly, I love that Holly Emerald, Espera’s Most Notorious Romance Novelist, became a recurring figure).
Of course, I didn’t always read a lot of genre romance. And this trilogy is very notably lacking in romantic subplots, because teen me was extremely anti-romance and anti-sex in books, and wanted more YA without either. It’s one notable area where my teenage tastes and my adult tastes have diverged considerably (though, frankly, I still prefer to keep romance to genre romance novels and not have it take over the plot of other books, I’m a bit all or nothing in that regard). Isabel’s general disinterest in, bewilderment about, and discomfort towards romance novels might echo some of how my teenage self felt about them – and in The Hummingbird Killer, it proves to be a way for her to begin to articulate what a canny reader might recognise as her asexuality and aromanticism, although she doesn’t have access to these terms to describe her (lack of) feelings.
But mostly, this conversation was a chance for me to have fun coming up with premises for terrible in-universe romance novels. An assassin who falls in love with her target. Two assassins from rival guilds in a star-crossed romance, which starts with a meet-cute over a dead body. Tasteless premises in a world where the guilds pose a very real threat, but the amount of military and police romance that exists in the real world tells me it would be far from unlikely that such a thing would exist. (Not to mention some of the more egregious IRL historical premises, such as the entire concept of Nazi romance.)
Moreover, I was poking fun at a certain type of story – the sort of assassin story I had very deliberately set out not to write. The assassin who falls in love with her target, or is humanised by sexual attraction, or otherwise abandons her murderous ways because of seeing a hot dude… yeah, the weird predominance of that kind of story is exactly why I decided Isabel was going to be ace/aro, so that there would be no chance of that happening here.
This scene was also a chance to think about how the publishing industry might work in Espera. We’ll see in The Hummingbird Killer that the majority of books circulating within Espera are not written and published within the city – it’s just not big enough to be wholly self-sustaining when it comes to literature – but all imported books are subject to guild censorship. Books like this, though, written by Esperan authors and published with guild permission inside the city walls, represent a very specific subset of literature that Esperans have access to.
It makes me wonder what other genres are popular. I can imagine that within the realm of “contemporary” fiction and real-world settings, Esperan authors would be popular by virtue of being more relatable to readers inside the city, who might struggle to relate to supposedly “everyday” stories that look nothing like their reality. But I can see sci-fi and fantasy being more typically imported, because a fantasy world is a fantasy world no matter where you come from, and there would be less of a need for a very specific Esperan flavour of it.
I also imagine that murder mysteries hit very different when you live in Espera, though we know from a line in The Hummingbird Killer that crime fiction and thrillers are surprisingly popular there. But I can see those being written by Esperan authors, too, because your straightforward police procedural might not translate well. I wonder what it’s like being a guild censor, and the extent to which books set in Espera have to be favourable in their portrayal of the guilds or risk being rejected. How many thinly-veiled allegories did authors with abolitionist sympathies manage to slip past the censors by transplanting them to a different setting – and how many did the censors catch? What would be the consequences for that?
These are the kind of worldbuilding questions I haven’t thought about in too much depth, not because they wouldn’t tell us anything about the city (on the contrary; I think they’d tell us quite a lot) but because I could tell it was a rabbithole from which I would not emerge except with great difficulty. Maybe one day I’ll play around with some of those concepts a bit more.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear what kind of stories you think Esperan authors would be writing, and what they would be reading. Would you pick up one of the romance novels Emma’s reading in this chapter – out of morbid curiosity, if nothing else?