Category: Writing

Borrowed Words

Let’s talk about epigraphs.

As a writer, I put way too much thought into my epigraphs, although I know that many readers skim straight past them. In fact, I often skim straight past them myself when reading: unless they’re from something I’ve read or know well, in most cases I will immediately forget what they were. (On very rare occasions, however, I’ll go look up the text they’re from.)

That said, if they are from something I know well… well, let’s just say I have high standards for epigraphs, and can get annoyed if other authors aren’t following my secret set of personal rules that at some point my brain decided ought to be universal. 😅

In this post, I figured I’d outline what my secret rules — my Philosophy of Epigraphs, as it were — actually are, and then talk a bit more about the epigraphs for each book in The Butterfly Assassin trilogy. These are, I must acknowledge, my own rules for myself, and despite my annoyance when books fail to meet my arbitrary standards, they’re not actually universal. But maybe they’ll be useful for people trying to figure out why an epigraph is or is not hitting the spot for them.

In my opinion, an epigraph needs to work on three levels. The first level is the surface level: it needs to set the tone of the book, give a sense of its vibes, to the reader, even if they’re completely unfamiliar with the text the epigraph is from and the context of the chosen lines. This is sometimes as far as an epigraph goes, but to be really effective, I think it needs also to work for the reader who is familiar with that text, giving them a more detailed sense of what’s about to follow. This is where many epigraphs fall down, because they’re chosen for the vibes of that particular line, but if you’re familiar with the context, it implies something somewhat different and might mislead you about what kind of story you’re about to read.

Finally, I think an epigraph is an intertextual statement: the author is positioning their book in relation to another work, making a statement about genre, tone, history, vibes… something. Depending on the nature of the work the epigraph is taken from, this can be a simple statement about aesthetics and energies or a complex one about literary history, but it’s always situating the story within a larger cultural network of language and story. Sometimes, what we’re learning from this is what the author’s main inspirations and influences were, whether classic literature or a modern pop song; at other times, we’re learning what out-of-context quotes they’ve seen included in a dozen moodboards on Tumblr. Both are intertextual statements, though some can be more effective than others…

So, we’ve got our surface level vibes, our contextual knowledge, and our intertextual statement. Now let’s look at the epigraph from The Butterfly Assassin, and explore those layers.

(Warning: there’ll be some spoilers here.)

All of the epigraphs in this trilogy are taken from works by Anne Carson, because frankly, she’s great, and because I love a theme. This first is a quote from Agamemnon by Aeschylus:

“For there lives in this house
a certain kind of anger,
a dread devising everrecurring everremembering anger
that longs to exact vengeance for a child.”

What does this epigraph tell us?

On a surface level: this is a story about anger, revenge, and harm done to a child. The reference to this house implies said anger and harm is occurring within a family, although that’s not unambiguous. We know immediately that this is not a happy story, and that we’re dealing with somebody who has been wronged.

With contextual knowledge: this quote is from a Greek tragedy about Agamemnon. Agamemnon is a man who sacrificed his own daughter to achieve his military aims (winds to sail to Troy); eventually, he is killed for this. This is not the start of a cycle of violence, but the continuation of one that plagues the line of Atreus, and which will continue into the next generation: Clytemnestra will kill Agamemnon, Orestes will kill Clytemnestra, the Furies will pursue Orestes. This book is therefore a tragedy about what happens when a man (Ian Ryans) values his military aims (profit from arms dealing) over the life of his daughter (Isabel); he will eventually face retribution and die for his actions, but the cycle of violence will not be broken by this act. It’s a story about violence within a family, and the suffering inflicted on the next generation by the actions of their parents.

Intertextually: this is a tragedy, and therefore it’s probably not going to end with everybody skipping away into the sunset. This is just one story of many (Aeschylus is not the only person to have written about Agamemnon; Anne Carson is not the only person to have translated his work; Isabel is a symptom of a broken city and not its only failure). And Agamemnon is only the first of the three plays that make up the Oresteia: this is act one of a trilogy, and it will get worse from here.

It’s like an onion. It’s got layers.

But what about The Hummingbird Killer?

Once again, we’re back with Anne Carson — this time, her essay ‘Tragedy: A Curious Art Form’, which opens another of her collections of translations, Grief Lessons.

“Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.”

On a surface level: this is another tragedy, and it’s about anger and grief. Those who remember the first book will know why grief is relevant; they’ll understand what Isabel is angry about; they’ll know to expect destruction.

With contextual knowledge: this is the first line of an essay that then goes on to talk about headhunting and decapitating your enemies, about moments of extreme violence, and about the catharsis of tragedy as a way of safely experiencing the depths of human darkness without having to go there yourself. We might then know to expect that this book’s body count will be high, that we’ll see moments of extreme violence, and that we’ll be going deep down into the human capacity to do awful things in moments of grief, rage, or sheer bloody survival, prompting us to reflect on our own darkness.

Intertextually: this is an essay about tragedy that warns us of the violence to come. This book is, like the first book, a tragedy, but it’s self-aware — we’ve been here before, and we know what to expect. We are, after all, still grieving from the last time around the cycle. The essay is bound in the same book as four plays by Euripides, each of them dealing with lives in crisis and violent destructions of the self; the epigraph stands outside of the tragedy, and heralds it, and says, this anger is born of grief.

And finally, Moth to a Flame.

This epigraph was the hardest to choose. I knew I wanted to use another Anne Carson quote, to complete the set of three, but I wasn’t sure what to chose. It might have been nice to use a poem, or another essay; something that moved us further away from tragedy. But in the end, I realised we needed to complete the cycle we were in. So we’re back with the translations again, this time from Euripides’ Herakles:

“Theseus: Stop. Give me your hand. I am your friend.
Herakles: I fear to stain your clothes with blood.
Theseus: Stain them, I don’t care.”

On a surface level: we know this will be about blood-drenched friendship. About reaching out a hand to somebody who has done something awful despite the risk of being stained by it.

With contextual knowledge: Herakles begins with Herakles in the underworld; he hasn’t yet come back from his journey there. He is dead, his people think, until he shows up again. Maybe this is a story about returning. Maybe it’s about coming up from underground. It’s certainly not a story about finding peace when everything’s over — far from it. Herakles kills his own family, so once again this is a story about what happens when children die, when children are hurt. It’s a story about consequences. But it’s also about a friend who reaches out to help shoulder the burden of those consequences.

Herakles himself enters gloriously upright but is soon reduced to a huddled and broken form. His task in the last third of the play is to rise from this prostration, which he does with the help of Theseus. Euripides makes clear that Herakles exits at the end leaning on his friend. Herakles’ reputation in myth and legend otherwise had been that of lonehand hero. Here begins a new Heraklean posture.” (Anne Carson, Grief Lessons, p.16)

We are in the last third of this trilogy now. Our huddled and broken heroine is faced with the challenge of rising from this position of defeat and loss; she has been alone for a very long time; she will not be alone this time.

Intertextually: Herakles, Anne Carson writes, is a tragedy about outliving your own myth. Herakles has been to hell — what more is left for him to do? He can’t be a tragic hero unless he can die, and so he brings the genre down around him.

If you stay you will see Herakles pull the whole house of this play down around himself, tragic conventions and all. Then from inside his berserker furor he has to build something absolutely new. New self, new name for the father, new definition of God. The old ones have stopped. It is as if the world broke off. Why did it break off? Because the myth ended.” (Anne Carson, Grief Lessons, p. 14)

We were, until this point, occupying a very specific narrative world: the city of Espera, with its closed gates and high walls. We had our myths — the inescapable power of the guilds, the Moth, the complete separation from the outside world. And now we are outside of that world, and the story is no longer easily labelled as speculative fiction, because it’s suddenly much closer to home. Isabel is outside of her own myths, and she’ll have to learn how to rebuild herself. This is a tragedy-after-tragedy, aware of the genre conventions and walking away from them. This is changing the now-familiar structure and story, and doing something different. This is breaking the cycle of the first two books, and knowing that the world of that myth can’t survive the breaking.

But perhaps the heart of this epigraph lies in its surface meaning: I am your friend. Despite the blood and despite the violence. Give me your hand. We have seen the taking of hands repeatedly in this trilogy. We’ve seen Emma’s outstretched hand, and we’ve seen Ronan’s, too, and the bloody bargains that come with it. Whose hand will Isabel be taking this time? Who will be pulling her back to her feet?

We return to the context: Herakles, down in Hades, down in his own darkness, brought Theseus out with him when he returned. And it’s Theseus who remains with him when the darkness follows.

“Herakles: You pity me although I killed my children?
Theseus: I weep for your whole changed life.”

What does it mean to be a friend to a monster? To trust in your love to bring them back from the brink of their monstrosity? What does it mean to help a friend once, and be changed by it, and for them to keep faith with you afterwards?

Perhaps, like Herakles, it’s to destroy your own myth and your own tragic genre and make something new out of the pieces.

“Herakles: So I, a man utterly wrecked and utterly shamed,
shall follow Theseus
like a little boat being towed along.
Whoever values wealth or strength
more than friends
is mad.”

These are my epigraphs, then, and this is a glimpse at some of the thought processes that went into choosing them and the effect I was trying to achieve by selecting these specific passages. Perhaps this was a classic case of me overthinking everything; I strongly doubt any readers have spent nearly as long thinking about them as I did! But I hope that even their simplest and most surface-level interpretations added something to the reading experience, even if it was only a clue that these were probably going to be sad (and violent) books.

I’m curious: if you’re a writer, do you use epigraphs? How do you choose the quotes that you use, and what are your Secret Rules and criteria for choosing them? If you’re a reader, how much attention do you pay to epigraphs? Can you think of any that really stood out to you, either for being super effective, or for being all wrong for the book?

Drop your thoughts in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.

The Butterfly Assassin and The Hummingbird Killer are available now; Moth to a Flame will be published on 23rd May 2024, and is available to pre-order.

Cover Reveal: Moth to a Flame

My adult books may have taken centre stage in my social media posts lately, not least because I have been mired in line edits and they have been occupying my thoughts, but it’s time to turn out attention back to YA. The third book in my YA assassin trilogy, The Butterfly Assassin, is coming out in May, and today I get to share with you the cover! (And, officially, the title, although you already knew that part.)

So, without further ado, here it is:

The cover of Moth to a Flame by Finn Longman. The cover has a black background, with grey graffiti-style patterns. In the centre is a blue, graffiti-style moth with a pink flame engulfing its left wing. The tagline reads "A city on fire / A killer on the run".

Isn’t it great? I love how strongly it leans into the street art theme: I feel like this genuinely looks like something you could see sprayed on a wall. My group chat are also pleased with how bisexual the colour scheme is. Not that it’s a particularly bi book, although I would say that the casual background queerness of Isabel’s world becomes more apparent in this one and her own efforts to understand (or to lose) herself further illuminate it. It’s a good colour scheme, in any case.

We’ve also broken free of the by day / by night tagline schema that we used for the first two books… a controversial choice, I know, but it’s a very different kind of book, one in which Isabel’s no longer able to maintain the separation of a double life but forced to grapple with everything that’s happened to her, away from the masks and the self-deception that let her ignore it. So we needed a new approach.

Still, I think the three books look pretty cool together:

The covers of all three books in the trilogy side by side. The Butterfly Assassin features a bright blue and yellow butterfly; The Hummingbird Killer a bright red and orange hummingbird, and Moth to a Flame a dark blue and bright pink moth on fire. All have a graffiti effect to them, although it's most pronounced with the third cover.

As for the book itself…

It’s difficult to talk too much about Moth to a Flame without significant spoilers for The Hummingbird Killer, and I know that I have quite a few new blog readers and social media followers who might not have had a chance to pick up the first two books yet. But if The Hummingbird Killer was where I broke everything, Moth to a Flame is where I fix it — or at least, start to put the broken pieces back together.

This book has quite a different tone to the first two. Where The Butterfly Assassin sits comfortably in the YA space with its themes of seeking independence, developing identity outside of your parents’ expectations, balancing school with the rest of your life, and the like, The Hummingbird Killer took us a little further into the crossover zone as Isabel started to live a young adult life, dealing with a day job and a flatmate. Moth to a Flame continues that trajectory, since Isabel is firmly a young adult by this point. At the same time, younger characters (like Sam) allow Isabel a chance to reconnect with a childhood/adolescence she never really got to have, stopping us from slipping all the way into the territory of adult fiction. Still definitely upper YA; I think the official recommendation is 14+, but maybe we might be appealing more to the older readers here.

The mood is a little more introspective and character-focused, compared to the more action-heavy earlier installments, and there’s also considerably less murder. To put that into context: when I tried to keep track of the body count of The Hummingbird Killer, I lost track around 50; by contrast, I think there are 3 murders in Moth to a Flame (or at least, three that have on-page significance/directly impact on our characters, though there are some referenced, off-page deaths). So you can see that’s a bit of a shift.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about this — that the book’s focus on healing, recovery, justice, and breaking cycles of violence would be a disappointment to those looking for a stabby, action-filled thriller. But it was important to me to write it like this, in opposition to my original plans for the book back in 2014-15 (which were just so very depressing). This story is substantially about grappling with harm that can’t be undone and damage that can’t be fixed, and when I say that this is a more hopeful story of healing, I don’t mean to suggest that everything’s going to be all right for everyone. But my original plans for the book were bleak, and I realised I wasn’t interested in telling that story, and that I had to do something different with this one than I’d done with the first two.

I joked on Tumblr that this is the Bucky Barnes Recovery Fic of the series. I have a soft spot for these stories — stories that step outside of the action and breathless plot of canon to focus on the slow process of a traumatised ex-assassin learning how to be a person again, grappling with grief and guilt, trying to make sense of their culpability for the acts they were forced by others to commit. Bucky and Isabel have quite different backstories, and I wouldn’t want to overstate the influence these fics had on me; nevertheless, these are the stories that taught me sometimes the most narratively interesting thing you can do with a character like this is allow them to heal and, through that healing, ask difficult questions about justice and punishment and repairing harm.

And, finally, this is also a book where the underlying themes of the whole series become significantly less subtle. I have always been criticising the military recruitment of teenagers, the arms industry that places profit above lives, and the social and political attitudes that enable these to continue, but this book’s wider geographical scope (no longer limited to the walled city of Espera) means this stops being metaphorical or abstract and starts being overt. Again, this might be an unpopular choice, but there’s no other way I could have written this book that would have felt true to me.

So, basically, this is where it becomes most obvious that this trilogy about assassins was written by a pacifist. Which some people might not like! But, on the other hand, I think in the world we live in right now, there’s a need for stories about grappling with aftermath and recovery — stories where love and found family and cosy scenes with cake don’t exist only in a low-stakes, low-danger environment, but are deliberately built as an act of resistance and a process of recovery. It’s a story about the power of friendship: not the power to prevent violence or harm, necessarily, but to create a life after violence, and rebuild safety from the ground up.

(Once it’s out, I’d love to do a big long thinky post about my epigraph choices for all three books and what they signify for me; the one for Moth to a Flame is very much about friendship in the face of monstrosity and violence.)

Anyway. Those are the vibes of the book. But, truthfully, I am mainly relying on the cliffhanger ending of The Hummingbird Killer to serve as the main pre-order incentive for this one, because if you read that and don’t want to know what happens next, well, I don’t think anything I say is going to change your mind 😅

Just in case, though, here’s a quick graphic showing some of the other things the book contains:

A graphic showing the cover of Moth to a Flame by Finn Longman. Around it are words with arrows pointing to the cover: "unhealthy coping mechanisms", "significantly less murder than books 1 and 2", "murder rehab (aka healing through friendship)", "cake", "revolution", "Leeds?", "gay communist support group", "traumatised ex-assassin learns how to be a person", "grief", "justice", "found family". 23.05.24, pre-order now.

I mean, who could resist that all important trope: “Leeds?”

(Yes, this book is largely set in Leeds. Yes, that’s a spoiler for The Hummingbird Killer. Yes, several of the locations in the book are real. No, none of the people in the book are real. Yes, this is why I went on a research trip to Leeds last year and took a truly disproportionate number of pictures of weird corners of the central library. Now you know!)

I think we’re still tweaking the cover copy and final blurb, but here’s the blurb as it appears on retail sites currently:

Isabel Ryans has fled Espera, leaving behind her identity as teen assassin the Moth. Now she’s trying to adjust to the reality of the outside world. But her grief and trauma are catching up with her, and surrounded by civilians who will never understand what life is like in the walled city, she feels more alone than ever.

When a journalist is murdered nearby, suspicion automatically falls on Isabel. And inside Espera’s walls, the abolitionist movement is gaining strength. When Isabel’s search for the killer leads to an unexpected reunion, she’s forced to decide whether she can really leave the city behind, and what part the Moth might have to play in the uprising.

Is Isabel Ryans the city’s saviour . . . or its scapegoat?

Moth to a Flame will be released on 23rd May, and it’s available to pre-order now.

Word By Word

I’m currently working on line edits for The Wolf and His King, my ‘Bisclavret’ retelling. Line edits, for me, are a multi-faceted process of nitpicking absolutely everything. This includes the grammar and rhythm of sentences, and I’ll read the whole book aloud to check for accidental rhyme, awkward alliteration, and repetition, because the feel of the words in my mouth is at least as important as their literal meanings. It’s also the part of the process when I research a lot of the fine details. Some people prefer to do their research earlier in the process, but for these kinds of details, I find it’s only worth doing them once I know a scene or line is sticking around, and therefore whether it’s worth going down the rabbithole.

Several rabbits on a hill riddled with their tunnels. A white hunting animal, perhaps a dog, enters one of the tunnels. The two rabbit on top of the hill appear to be having a conversation. Marginal illustration from a psalter.
Medieval rabbitholes:
British Library, Additional MS 42130 (The Lutterell Psalter), folio 176v

But rabbitholes, there are many — and my general interest in medieval literature and the world of its characters means I’m not inclined to read only the bare minimum to grasp a concept, but have a tendency to learn a lot more than is strictly necessary. At one point, I wanted to refine a metaphor but I needed a better understanding of how medieval people understood the universe, so I read an entire book about medieval science for the sake of a handful of words about constellations. Currently, I’m reading a whole book on knightly education and the literate culture of medieval courts to make sure everybody in the book knows the correct amount of Latin for their status and role. You get the idea.

Then there are the briefer queries, like whether a plant is native to the area, which usually prompts a Wikipedia dive. Every time I mention an animal, I check medieval bestiaries to understand better how medieval people would have thought about it, and to give myself the option to include some of those weirder ideas in the book itself. (Weasels can raise the dead? Sure, why not.)

A major part of my nitpicking, however, revolves around language and etymology, and I’ve found myself bookmarking the online OED for faster reference. (The advantage of being both an author and a PhD student is that I get full access via my uni login; truly, the university library has enabled so much of my research.)

I had to set out my own rules before I embarked on this. My characters are not speaking modern English — they live in alternate-universe 12th century Brittany*, and so are probably speaking a mixture of medieval Breton, French, and Latin, depending on the context. As such, there’s no point being too fussy about exactly when a word was first attested in English. But my rule for myself is that I need the concept to exist, and etymology is usually the first step to discovering the answer to that, especially if I can find a solid Latin or Anglo-Norman root for a word or idea.

*It has a king. Brittany was a duchy in this period.

An early casualty of this process was the figurative use of “purgatory” (“the endless purgatory of waiting to be discovered”); turns out even the restricted theological use of purgatory is just ever so slightly too late for me, with our very own Marie de France probably being responsible for its use in Anglo-Norman French, c. 1190. This would probably have been fine, if I meant it in the purely theological sense; I’ve deliberately not pinned this novel to a specific year, even if in my brain it’s somewhere in the 1170s, and I figured a 20-year anachronism was no big deal. The figurative use, though, didn’t seem to enter French until the sixteenth century, and four centuries is an entirely different kettle of fish; after a lot of pondering, I swapped it for the simpler torment, with a flag to come back to the overall sentence to see if I could re-work it.

Then, a more recent challenge: focus. This one tested me. Of course medieval authors and audiences would have had a concept of directing your attention to a specific thing, or concentrating on it, but focus would have meant something quite different to them — its earliest use seems to have been a term for a hearth or fireplace. Its more scientific use as a fixed point at which point light or sound converges is a seventeenth century one, and therefore our modern use of the term was pretty significantly at odds with what it would have meant to a medieval audience.

Did that matter, though, given that the concept of “specific thing you are looking at” must have been around for as long as people were looking at specific things? This was difficult to answer, and it was while I was grumbling about this word and how many times I seemed to have used it (or variants) in one of my writing groups that somebody asked the crucial question, the one that helped me pin down why I was doing this in the first place: “Is there a reason this novel needs to be etymologically accurate?”

Slightly facetiously, I answered, “I want the book to be good and historical detail matters to me.” And this is true. I want it to be good, and historical detail does matter to me. I’m a pedant even when I try not to be, and have been repeatedly jarred out of historical fiction or TV shows by anachronisms.

But although those anachronisms sometimes relate to words, it’s not usually just about the attestation date: it’s usually about the social ideas and concepts that are being expressed by those words, and whether those existed. I got annoyed at Netflix’s Bodies for using the term “homosexual” in 1890, two years before it was coined in English, not primarily because the word was anachronistic but because the entire concept of homosexuality represented a massive shift in queer history and how what was previously ‘behaviour’ started to be understood as ‘identity’. As such, it wasn’t just a word that wasn’t around in English yet, but an understanding of the world and a specific theory of human nature. (They probably would’ve got away with it, except that I was re-reading Halperin’s 100 Years of Homosexuality the same week that I watched Bodies. Bad timing for them/my enjoyment of that strand of the show.)

And when I’ve grown frustrated with other medieval-set novels, it’s rarely the language that’s the problem, but the mindsets: the modern attitudes towards touch and intimacy; the lack of religion in the background (and foreground) of everyday life; the way ‘good’ characters are ‘progressive’ in ways that align with modern values but rarely make sense for their context; the attitude towards clothing — and by extension often to women’s work of weaving and sewing — that speaks to a modern fast fashion mindset and not a world in which every scrap of fabric represented hours of labour…

So I thought about it a little more, and I realised it wasn’t really historical accuracy in terminology that was important to me. What mattered was that the work of weeding out these linguistic anachronisms also served to weed out lazy cliches in figurative language where I’d fallen back on a set phrase that relied on a modern understanding of the world — an understanding my characters wouldn’t have had. What I actually wanted to do wasn’t to write a linguistically correct pastiche of the twelfth century, but to represent the viewpoint of my characters: their perspective of the world, their understanding of the plot, not a modern understanding of those same events.

I doubt I’ll ever fully succeed in this aim, both because I’m a long way removed from the twelfth century and because I hail from suburban London, which means I’ve spent much of my life somewhat distant from nature and the rhythm of the seasons and the land. Nor do I think a wholly medieval mindset would suit the story I’m trying to tell, which is, after all, intended for a modern audience, and is using medieval literature to think about concepts that trouble me as somebody living in the modern world. If it were purely a medieval text, there would be no point me writing it, because that text already exists, and Marie de France wrote it. The whole point of a retelling is that it’s doing something new with a story, and striking different resonances, some of which its original audience might not have heard.

But every time I find a word that relies too heavily on a modern concept, challenge it, and reword every sentence that it’s in, I think I’m untangling some of the assumptions that my characters will see the world the same way that I do, the same way that my readers do, and express it in ways that are familiar to us. I’m forcing myself to consider how my own mindset as a writer is shaped by modern science, as well as by the specific branch of Christianity that I grew up with — although I didn’t have a secular upbringing, it was a very twenty-first century low-church Protestant environment that would be completely alien to a twelfth century Christian, and as such, I keep accidentally being heretical.

(This will be the next stage of the historical nitpicking: the Heresy Read, in which I will consult my friend who works on medieval hagiography and generally knows more about medieval Christianity than I do, to check that any heresy in this book is there on purpose. Heresy, you see, can be present for valid plot or emotional reasons, but only when it’s done secure in the knowledge that it is heretical, and not just because I have to be periodically reminded that saints are a thing.)

And so every time I spot a word that looks a little too scientific, or relies on a modern understanding of emotions or relationships, or which otherwise rings the little bell in my head labelled “possible anachronism?”, I get out the OED, and I look it up, and I start my research journey: Meanings and uses. Etymology. Anglo-Norman and Latin roots. Alternative words that might be older. New ways in which I might get across this concept that are completely detached from this phrasing.

Just as I occasionally stop myself, think, “Is it feasible that people would go to a specific location to drink and socialise when brewing was, as far as I’m aware, more or less a home industry and ‘taverns’ as a concept aren’t really around yet?”, and then make a note to research history of brewing and social drinking for the sake of ensuring one scene takes place in a historically plausible location. Because I know that’s the exact kind of detail that would bug me if somebody else got it wrong, and therefore, in the interests of not being a hypocrite when I bitch to my friends about something I’m reading, I owe it to myself to do as much research as I can.

I will never catch everything. I am relying on my background as a medievalist to have correctly labelled those possible anachronism? bells, and it’s entirely possible some will not sound when they should. But every word I look up brings me a little closer to understanding how my characters might have experienced and expressed things, and that matters — just as every rabbithole I go down on the larger issues, like education, flags new things to include which I hadn’t even thought to look up. (My marginal notes now include several injunctions to ADD MORE MUSICIANS!)

It’s a slow process, but bit by bit, word by word, concept by concept, I am making something of this book that is more medieval, and by doing that, making it more creative, more challenging, and less reliant on cliches and borrowed turns of phrase. It is forcing me to be deliberate about the language I use, and it’s making me a better writer by doing so.

Or at least, I think it is. Eventually, I suppose, we’ll find out if you agree.

The Wolf and His King will be published by Gollancz in 2025, and is available to pre-order now.

Queer Werewolves, Traumatic Shapeshifting, and Doomed Heroes

I have been waiting a very long time to write this post. Months at the very least, but really it feels like the culmination of several years of work and waiting and more work and more waiting, and now — now at last the news is here:

Gollancz snaps up three-book deal from Finn Longman in six-figure pre-empt
The Bookseller, 29th Feb 2024

That’s right. I’ve got more books coming. Adult books, specifically, and fantasy, which makes a change! Not just one, not even two, but three medieval retellings being published by Gollancz over the next few years, and I am SO EXCITED to be able to tell you about them at last.

First up is The Wolf and His King, coming in 2025. This is a queer retelling of Bisclavret that, yes, is focused on the homoerotic possibilities of the relationship between Bisclavret and the king, but is also about chronic pain and illness, the mortifying ordeal of being known, and being an exile in your own home. There is a lot of yearning, and some of that yearning is romantic, and some of it is about desperately wanting to be something your body seems determined not to let you become.

I’ve talked before on this blog about how this book uses werewolfism as a metaphor to explore chronic pain, and that’s definitely at the heart of the story — but there’s a lot more than just that in there. It’s about love and feudal interdependence and needing to be understood and trying to build peace. It’s partially in second person and partially in verse; it’s the weird medieval book of my heart, and it felt at times like it would never sell, but it did. And next year, you’ll be able to read it. In fact, you can even pre-order it right now… [edit: or imminently, the links don’t seem to be up yet, but REALLY SOON]

In 2026, I’m bringing you The Animals We Became [working title], which is a queertrans retelling of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, looking at gender, compulsory heterosexuality, and trauma, via nonconsensual shapeshifting. The Fourth Branch is not a nice story, nor a kind one, but it’s been one I’ve been wanting to retell since my first unfinished attempts at doing so back in 2012. It’s a tale that I think has a lot to say about our modern anxieties about gender, autonomy, and category crisis — as well as about the difference between justice and punishment, something I keep finding myself coming back to in my writing.

This book is a newer one, because I sort of sold it on proposal, except that I got carried away writing the sample chapters for Gollancz last year and ended up drafting the entire book. I wrote a post last year about how this process helped me develop new academic ideas about the story as well as new ways of understanding it as a narrative. I’m excited to get back to it and turn that first draft into something more polished and nuanced, but if nothing else, I can promise you that my tagline of “t4t shapeshifting and trauma” remains… very accurate.

And finally, in 2027, I get to share with you To Run With The Hound [working title]. Long-term readers will know that I wrote a book with this title way back in 2018. The book I’ve sold isn’t exactly that book — it’s a proposal for how I intend to completely rewrite that book from the ground up. But yes, this is it: my Cú Chulainn novel, which is sort of a Cú Chulainn/Fer Diad novel with vague Song of Achilles vibes, except it’s also so much more than that. I haven’t written the new version yet, but the plan is to use a nonlinear narrative to explore why Táin Bó Cúailnge is actually a tragedy, and what it means to be doomed by the narrative (but not in the way you thought you were). It will feature a great many feelings about Fer Diad, Láeg, and Cú Chulainn himself.

Obviously, all of these books draw very heavily on my academic background as a medievalist, but TRWTH is the most directly related to my PhD research. Which is just as well, because yes, I am juggling writing and editing these books with a full-time PhD, and I’m not entirely sure I’d recommend that as a state of affairs, but at least the overlap means I can research them both simultaneously.

In the spirit of providing as much information about these books as I can at this point of time, I have anticipated some possible FAQs, and will endeavour to answer them:

How long have you been keeping this secret?

FOREVER. Or, more specifically, since May 19th 2023, which has been killing me. I have not been particularly good at it. I think everyone who knows me IRL has heard the news at this point. But they’ve been strictly instructed to pretend they’re surprised on social media.

When do these books come out?

The Wolf and His King is scheduled for “Spring 2025”, with a holding date of March on the pre-order pages. As soon as that’s actually pinned down, I’ll let you know. The others should follow in 2026 and 2027, as long as there are no hurdles along the way, but I can’t promise there will be no PhD-related delays 🙈

Are these adult books or YA?

Adult. Definitely. I feel this is worth emphasising, especially when we come to Animals, because honestly, Gwydion is awful. I mean, he is the ultimate poor little meow meow, and he is terrible. The Wolf and His King would probably be fine for most teenage readers, but since it’s not aimed at teens, they might not vibe with it so much. The others (especially Animals) are heavier, and deal with darker themes in ways that aren’t particularly suitable for younger readers. (Full content warnings closer to the time, although I recommend googling the Fourth Branch for the general vibes…!) But, you know, I’m not the book police, so use your own discretion.

What genre label would you put on these books?

I think I would describe them as literary fantasy. I don’t know if this is how they would be “officially” labelled. Their fantastical elements — werewolves and shapeshifting and whatever is going on with Cú Chulainn — are crucial parts of the story, but I’m not interested in explaining them, or particularly in developing a magic system for them to exist within. The focus is on the themes and the ways that the stories are told, often with experimental POVs and stylistic choices. Hence the literary part, I guess. But some would probably describe them just as fantasy. That makes sense, too. Historical fantasy almost fits, except that the history we’re dealing with is pseudohistory, and deliberately ambiguous in its exact dates.

Does this mean you’re only going to write adult books now, or will you write more YA?

I don’t have any more YA books contracted once Moth to a Flame comes out in May. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to write any more. I think I’m probably going to take a little break from it, though (juggling these + the full-time PhD is more than enough, honestly), so it might be a couple of years before I have something else lined up on that side of things. I’ve got a couple of ideas I might pursue: a contemporary novel set in a secondary school orchestra, featuring the world’s most codependent string quartet, or a queer pacifist sci-fi Robin Hood retelling that might well be summed up as ‘be gay, do crimes’. Or I might write something else entirely. But we’ll see.

What formats will they be published in?

I believe it’s hardback first, with simultaneous e- and audiobook, and then paperback later. I’ve never had a hardback before, so that will be a novelty.

Will they be available in [x] language?

I have no say over translation rights but I very much hope these books will be picked up and translated into as many languages as possible! If you are a publisher and you want foreign rights, I guess now is the time to talk to Gollancz — hit them up at London Book Fair or something. Especially if you want to translate them into Celtic languages. I would absolutely love to see Animals in Welsh or TRWTH in Irish… listen, I know the market’s small, but it’s worth it. Let’s do it. I believe in us.

How much romance/sex is there in these books?

[ETA: A brief explanatory note, because the response to this book announcement has been fabulous and this post has spread much further than I expected, and therefore beyond my usual readers — The Butterfly Assassin trilogy contains zero romance, and this has been something I’ve been keen to emphasise in my publicity, not least because it’s unusual in YA. So existing readers might be curious whether I’m continuing in the same direction on that front, and that’s why I picked out this question to answer. (Not because I think it is the most important piece of information about any book in general, or anything like that!)]

The Wolf and His King is significantly focused on yearning, although mostly of the unfulfilled variety for the majority of the book. There are some sex scenes, largely poetic rather than explicit. I have told my mum that she’s allowed to read this book, if that helps. I don’t think you could describe it as capital R Romance, or really as romantasy, but it does technically have a HEA, so I guess if you really wanted to stretch your definitions, you could.

The Animals We Became has some sex, and very little romance. It’s a bit more explicit than The Wolf and His King, and I haven’t decided if my mum’s allowed to read it yet. Given the plot of the Fourth Branch, issues surrounding assault, consent, and bodily autonomy are quite central. It’s not what I would call a romantic book.

I really can’t tell you much about To Run With The Hound at this point, because I haven’t written it. I think it will deal a lot with the blurred boundaries of friendship/sworn brotherhood/attraction/enmity. I don’t think romance in the modern sense will be a focus, but it is substantially about complicated relationships between people, and, yeah, also about heroic masculinity and combat/war as a form of intricate ritual.

How much murder is in these books?

Substantially less than is in The Butterfly Assassin trilogy, with the possible exception of To Run With The Hound.

How much am I going to suffer as a reader?

The Wolf and His King is the least angsty, and has a happy ending. The Animals We Became is somewhat more angsty; it has a hopeful but complicated ending. To Run With The Hound is a tragedy, and you’re going to suffer. In other words, it’s a steady run downhill from here to 2027.

How do I get an ARC?

Absolutely no idea, it’s still early days, more edits to do before that’s on the cards, but I imagine you go and ask Gollancz very nicely. When I know more, you will know more.

Do I need to know the original stories to enjoy these books?

No, I have been meticulously testing them on beta readers who are unfamiliar with the original stories, mostly to watch them yell at me when something terrible happens that was absolutely not my idea. However, if you want to do background reading, I’m happy to provide a bibliography.

The Bookseller says it was a 6-figure deal. Does that mean you’re rich now?

Tragically not. There are a lot of misconceptions about how much money authors make, and a lot of assumptions get made based on flashy headlines. Turns out when you spread low six figures over around five years, and pay taxes and agent commissions and things like that, you still end up earning less than minimum wage. On the flip side, though, it’s a very nice supplement to my PhD stipend, and the combination of the two means I can almost afford to have the heating on for more than five hours per day in winter. Almost.

For real, I am extremely grateful for this opportunity and it’s more than I’ve ever earned for my writing before. I don’t want to belittle that fact: I know how it feels to be the writer with a substantially-less-than-six-figure deal watching more financially successful authors complain about how it’s hardly anything and wishing they’d catch themselves on, lol. But writing is still definitely not the business to go into if you want a living wage, so unfortunately I won’t be buying a house any time soon, and I will continue to wince whenever my bike needs yet another pricey repair.

How’s it going, balancing this with the PhD?

It’s going. Sometimes it’s fine. Sometimes I’m very stressed. I think balancing these and also Moth to a Flame was not ideal, but that will all be wrapped up soon, so then I’ll only have two jobs. It helps that these books overlap so much (in content and also thematically) with my PhD research, so everything I learn as part of the PhD helps add depth and colour to the books themselves. The hard part will be holding myself back from adding a bibliography at the back of each book…

Can you tell me more about medieval werewolves?

Yes. Start here.

But what about the accidental vampire novel you were talking about?

The accidental vampire novel is not contracted. Yet. Paranormal romance publishers, hit me up if you’re into incredibly niche romance novels about desperate postgrads and the things they’ll do to a) get PhD funding and b) convince their vampire housemate to suck their blood.

When can I preorder?

For The Wolf and His King: right now! At least in the UK! Still waiting on more retailers, including more who ship internationally, but I highly recommend you go bug them to make it available because I think theoretically they can do that. All the links I’ve got so far are on this page.

For the others, ask me again in a year or so. If that’s too long to wait, remember that Moth to a Flame comes out this May, so you should go grab that in the meantime, and the first two if you haven’t already read them.

I think that is everything, but if I have not answered your question, then please ask it in the comments and I will endeavour to do so!

In general I am just really excited to share this news with you, extremely grateful to my agent Jessica Hare for being willing to take on my weird queer literary adult fantasy novels even though she signed me for The Butterfly Assassin which is really not that, and very glad to have found an editor like Bethan Morgan who is willing to spend three days going back and forth with me about the nuances of words like ‘myth’ and ‘folklore’ when dealing with medieval literature. The future is ahead of us and it is a queer medieval future — and isn’t that glorious?

Stitching The Details

There’s a phenomenon — I’m sure you’ve experienced it — where you’ll learn a word that you’re sure you’ve never heard before and will probably never hear again, and then almost as soon as you’ve learned it, you start seeing it everywhere. It’s like a conspiracy: the world knows you just learned that word, and now it’s in every newspaper article, every blog post, every conversation with friends, and you find yourself wondering how it is that it took you so long to learn it, when clearly it’s everywhere.

I would like to propose that a version of this phenomenon exists for research. You’ll embark on learning about a topic you knew nothing about before, and as soon as you’ve got a little bit of information about it, suddenly you’re noticing that information everywhere, and wondering how it is that you never paid attention to it before.

In my case, the topic is medieval fashion, and specifically, twelfth-century clothing. This is a period I work on as both an author and an academic, but as a literature-focused researcher rather than a historian, I rarely find myself worrying too much about concrete, material details. This is a weakness when I have my author hat on, though, and I suddenly find that material culture matters a lot and need to go figure out the architecture and what any of my characters are wearing before I can proceed.

I’m currently editing The Wolf and His King, a queer Bisclavret retelling I originally drafted in 2019. It’s quite literary in style (partially in second person and partially in verse, for starters), and focused a lot more on the metaphorical resonances of werewolfism (which I’m using partly to explore ideas about chronic pain/illness) than on the exact practicalities. Still, those who know ‘Bisclavret’, one of the lais of Marie de France, will know that clothing is a crucial part of the story: Bisclavret needs his clothes to transform back into a human, and when they’re stolen, he’s trapped in wolf form until they’re restored to him.

The centrality of clothing in the story meant I couldn’t brush over it as an inconsequential detail in my novel, though of course I did in the early drafts, because I never layer in the important details until way too late in the process. Clothes are not incidental: they are fundamental to the plot. And although Bisclavret, and by extension this novel, is not set in a very specific identifiable year — it seems to be set in a version of Brittany onto which Marie is projecting a lot of Anglo-Norman cultural details; for starters, it has a king — I wanted that clothing to be historically plausible, even if accurate is a rung further up the ladder that I’m not exactly on right now.

A manuscript image of a woman writing at a sloped desk. She holds a pen in one hand and a knife in the other (for erasing mistakes). She's wearing a simple veil to cover her hair, and a loose overtunic without sleeves, revealing the dark blue sleeves of her undertunic.
Marie de France, as pictured in BnF Ms. 3142 (late 13th century)

I started with YouTube videos by reenactors. While I don’t find videos a particularly useful way to learn most of the time, this is one area where they really shine. “Get ready with me, twelfth century edition!” will demonstrate far more clearly how many layers people are wearing, how they’re put on, how they’re fastened, and which parts of the clothing need a second person to help with them, than any lengthy treatise in text will do. As well as reenactors demonstrating their twelfth-century fashion, there were others digging into the manuscript images and sculptures to provide visual references to other reenactors to help them understand the styles of the time — references that any passing author might also find beneficial.

I knew, theoretically, that I would need manuscript images and other visual evidence, but I didn’t have the foggiest idea what manuscripts to look at, and with the loss of the British Library’s digitised collection, I wasn’t even sure where to start with looking for digital images, since I’m not very familiar with other libraries’ interfaces. So these videos were a great shortcut to understanding the resources I would need to work with, and giving me the basic information. From there, I was able to progress to books and other written descriptions — now that I had a picture in my head of what the terminology referred to, I could follow the descriptions in a way that I hadn’t been able to when they were all very abstract to me.

Since then, though, I’ve been seeing clothes everywhere. Every time I see a manuscript image, I find myself looking at the sleeves and the headgear, trying to guess what century it’s from before I read the caption. Scrolling on Tumblr, I ran across pictures of a reenactor showing off her latest outfit, and found myself going, “Ooh, those buttons look quite fourteenth century,” before checking the tags and determining that they were supposed to. And when reading a book that lavished descriptions on the character’s newfangled dress and its buttoned sleeves, I was able to side-eye it for being about a century early with those. Six weeks ago, I would not have noticed that, and I would not have cared.

14th Century buttoned sleeves on a men’s cotehardie, via Project Broad Axe

Or, most obviously, I was at the Fitzwilliam Museum with my mum earlier this week, and we were in the medieval art gallery. “Look,” I’d say, pointing to a manuscript image, “that looks a bit like the clothing I’ve been looking at, except slightly different hair and headgear.” Lo and behold, very early thirteenth century.

I suspect this newfound knowledge will make me very boring when reading historical fiction and watching TV/films — now I have a whole new thing to be annoyed about! As though grumbling about a TV show being two years early with the term homosexual in English wasn’t pedantic enough!* — but it’s also given me access to a whole new world of art history. While I’ll probably never be super invested in modern art history, as a non-visual person, I understand much better now what we can learn from pictures and sculptures, and I have something to look for when examining those artworks that allows me to understand them in more depth than just a casual “hehe funny medieval image”, or whatever I was doing before.

In fact, I so much can’t stop noticing the clothing on every medieval image I look at that I’m starting to wonder how on earth I managed to know nothing about medieval clothing until now — and how my vague guesswork when writing the early drafts of this book managed to be so far off the historical reality. (In my defence, though, I usually work on Ireland, and stories set in the very distant past, and in any case, trying to use Táin Bó Cúailnge to understand Irish clothing would have you thinking people often wore 27 shirts simultaneously.)

But it’s not just the visual depictions of clothing that I’ve found myself paying attention to — it’s also the descriptions in romances and stories. I was recently rereading Yvain, as you do, because Yvain is my favourite cat person, and I came across a scene in which he is dressed in fine clothes by a maiden, who fetches a needle and thread and sews his ‘shirt’.

Many of the terms I’d come to recognise from my clothing research were absent from the translation, which referred to a ‘shirt’ and ‘pants’. Fortunately, I happen to own a copy of Yvain in Old French (who doesn’t, amirite), so I could check the terms used in the original: chemise and braies. Ah, I thought. This was why I had mistakenly assumed everyone was wearing trousers and had forgotten we were in a tunic-dominated world. There’s nothing wrong with the translation of ‘braies’ as ‘pants’ — actually, I think it’s rather good, since it kind of works in both UK and US English, with braies in this period being somewhere between underpants and trousers. But the image that ‘shirt and pants’ created in my head was not one that resembled any of the manuscript images from this period.

A medieval manuscript image showing three men. The man on the left is wearing an orange tunic which has been tucked up into his belt, revealing light-coloured underwear tucked into green legwear that has been laced to the top of the underwear (fastenings not visible). He wears a light-coloured cap to cover his hair. In the middle is a man wearing a blue tunic, a light-coloured cap, and seemingly nothing on his legs. On the right is a man stripped only to his braies -- loose underwear rolled at the waist, falling to mid-calf, with the bottom hoiked up and attached to the waist. He is also wearing a cap, despite being shirtless and bare-legged.
Braies in the Morgan Bible (13th Century)

And as for the sewing…

I had never understood the sewing. I had skimmed straight past the reference to sewing, assuming vaguely that maybe there were some repairs or tailoring needed before he could wear this ‘shirt’. It didn’t occur to me that this could be part of putting the shirt on. But one of the things I learned during my research was that the tight sleeves of the nobility, in this world before buttons as fastenings or elasticated fabric, would be sewn every time they were worn. What I was seeing in this text, suddenly, was the material culture casually referenced in the literature in a way that I hadn’t previously had the knowledge to perceive.

Chrétien, of course, sees no reason to explain what this means. He’s not writing for an audience 900 years in the future; unlike a fantasy author trying to make sure their readers can follow the worldbuilding, he doesn’t need to say, “And then she sewed his sleeves in the tight fashion favoured by the nobility, demonstrating his high class and the regard in which she holds him,” or whatever, because he doesn’t need to. His audience would have understood that. I, until very recently, didn’t, and as such, the literary texts alone couldn’t teach me how clothing worked.

Back, then, to Bisclavret, and to The Wolf and His King. It became apparent that I would need to rewrite all of my clothing descriptions, but that should have been a simple edit, a mechanical change. Except, of course, that some of the clothing I was now looking at would have required a second person to help with it, and in several of these scenes, Bisclavret got dressed alone. Some would be easier to resolve than others, but it wasn’t the logistics that caught my attention about that — it was the symbolism.

In ‘Bisclavret’, as in some other French tales like Guillaume de Palerne, clothing is significant as the mechanism by which humanity — and sanity, with which it’s often conflated — is bestowed. Bisclavret is able to be human when his clothes are restored to him. Yvain, recovering from a period of madness in the woods, becomes conscious of his nakedness and clothing is needed to fully restore him to society. Guillaume and his beloved (I’m sorry, I don’t know her name in French, I only know her from the Irish Eachtra Uilliam, where she’s Melior — I assume it’s something similar) can be sewn into the skins of animals as a disguise (sewing again!) and therefore functionally become animals, temporarily, but their humanity is eventually perceived not because their skin becomes visible through gaps in the stitching, but because their human clothes are visible through the gaps.

A marginal illustration from a medieval manuscript, showing a deer with a person's face visible in its stomach and their human feet replacing the deer's back legs.
A person dressed as a deer. Roman d’Alexandre,
Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 70r (14th Century)

I knew this, which is why I knew that clothing was too significant in this story to be treated carelessly in my retelling of it. But I hadn’t thought about the implications of needing those clothes to be sewn by somebody else, or at least laced (potentially possible to do alone, but extremely difficult, especially if you’re not hypermobile like me and can’t bend your arms in weird directions). How this ensures that humanity and identity must always be granted by somebody else: created and validated by the observer. If humanity requires being dressed, and being dressed (for a high-class character) requires somebody else’s help, then humanity is also dependent on that other person to deem you worthy of it and participate in that act of recreation.

And when I put it like that it seems… well, obvious. In my own work on gender, I’ve explored how this is culturally contingent and dependent on external observers to recognise and validate behaviour and belonging. I think this is one of the reasons that the Cú Chulainn of Táin Bó Cúailnge has such a complicated and embattled masculinity: he’s alone (except for Láeg) for most of the text, defined by opposition rather than by community or society. In his case, this overlaps significantly with his humanity and the way he walks the boundaries of the monstrous. (If this interests you, I have an open-access article on the subject.)

So of course Bisclavret can’t be officially and fully human until he’s seen and recognised as human by others. I just hadn’t realised how much the act of getting dressed — not merely the act of being dressed — was a part of that.

As well as providing me with some potent fodder for angst, metaphors, and symbolism in my creative work on this story, it raises questions about the lai itself. In the early part of the tale, Bisclavret transforms in secret. How, then, is he getting dressed? Is he wearing lower-class clothing with loose sleeves and simple lacing, and therefore sacrificing some of his noble status to maintain secrecy in the act of becoming human? Is there an unnamed and unremarked servant who knows his secret, and helps him? (That could be a story in its own right.) Is his clothing, and therefore his humanity, always partial — does he return dishevelled with unsewn sleeves and wonky laces and need to have them discreetly fixed before he’s seen by anyone who matters? (Again, the unremarked servants come into play…) Is he, in fact, hypermobile and capable of managing his own fastenings, even the most awkwardly positioned ones? (I am in your medieval texts, diagnosing everyone with hEDS, muah ha ha ha.)** Or is Marie’s imagined Brittany and vague fantasy past an area in which everyday clothing logistics aren’t applicable?

I don’t have answers, and I also wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to assume I’m the first person to have thought of this. Unlike medieval Irish literature, where any deviation from a small list of well-covered topics will mean you can rapidly find yourself plumbing the bibliographic depths and emerging only with an obscure reference in a racist book from the 1880s, if you find anything at all, medieval French literature is abundant with scholars and readings of these tales from all sorts of directions. Quite possibly somebody has examined the lais from a ‘fashion history’ perspective, and drawn conclusions about what the characters must be wearing to make the story viable.

Even if they haven’t, having seen those references in Yvain to a maiden sewing Yvain’s clothing for him, references I skimmed straight past until I understood what was being described, it’s clear to me that these stories are describing, using, engaging with the material culture of their day and assuming that their readers know what they mean. Perhaps we were always supposed to assume that Bisclavret had somebody in his confidences who was helping him obtain his humanity — in which case his wife’s fear of him may also be betrayal, because he trusted somebody else with that knowledge and not her. Or perhaps we were always supposed to read into the types of clothing he might have been wearing to be able to manage alone, and how this in itself represents a subversion of the natural order because it isn’t what a baron and knight should have been wearing.

What I know for sure is that learning about medieval clothing for the purposes of writing fiction has revealed something about the stories themselves that enhances my academic understanding of them — once again, storytelling and scholarship work together. When I get inside the story and try to tell it from the inside, I understand better why it looks the way it does on the outside. I begin, temporarily, to wear the clothes of its authors, and to understand how the seams were sewn.

And I will be forevermore irritated by the anachronistic use of buttons in fiction. That too.

*Although in defence of my pedantry, the coining of the term homosexual and the shift to thinking of sexuality as an identity rather than a behaviour was actually pretty significant in the development of queer history, so having a character be accused of ‘homosexual’ activities in 1890 felt like a glaring anachronism. Bodies would probably have got away with it if I hadn’t been rereading Halperin’s 100 Years of Homosexuality that same week, though. [back]

**I don’t really believe in diagnosing fictional and historical figures with things but if I were going to, the fact that Cú Chulainn is notable for the way his knees bend backwards, he wakes up too quickly from sedation, and he needs a special hard bed or he can’t sleep… yeah that boy is hypermobile for sure. [back]

NB: Medieval clothing is, as we can see, a topic I’m new to. If there are any errors in this post, or you have any suggestions for further reading on the topic of how clothes are used in romances and lais, please let me know in the comments.

05/12, Funebro – Part II (TBA Readalong)

Today is the last day of our readalong for The Butterfly Assassin, two and a half months after we started. It’s been my longest blog series, with well over sixty thousand words in posts – not quite as many words as another volume in the trilogy (they tend to run in the 95-100k range), but certainly an additional short book. So if you’re feeling like you’ve read an entire book’s worth of posts, that’s because you have. And if I’m feeling like I’ve written one, well, ditto.

Today is the fifth of December, the day of Emma’s funeral.

A lot of the elements of this scene have been present for a long time – we’ve always had some kind of funeral for Emma at the end of the book, Isabel’s always had a bit of an angsty little speech / internal monologue about what Emma meant to her (though in some previous versions she said more of it out loud), and, crucially, Isabel has always taken revenge and killed Michael.

A lot of details have changed, however. Emma’s funeral used to be the penultimate chapter of the book, while the revenge scene was a chapter of its own, at the very end, with a considerable time skip between them – all the way to the following spring, in the first five drafts. As a result, there was no need for that scene to serve as the final confirmation of Isabel’s return to Comma, because she was already firmly ensconced within the guild – which meant there was no appearance from Ronan at the very end. Instead, we closed on the act of vengeance, of Isabel looking down at Michael’s body… honestly, it had big Aeneid energies, not least because it felt somewhat unfinished.

But before the moment of revenge, we had a bridging scene – a happier moment. In the existing book, Emma inspires Isabel to dye her hair bright colours, in imitation of her mural, but she doesn’t directly engineer it. But originally, it was her idea in a more direct way. From the fifth draft:

It’s spring. Isabel can hear birdsong as she drags herself out of bed into the morning sunlight. The winter felt interminable, any hopeful daffodils quickly beaten down by frost, but today the air feels warm and gentle.

In the kitchen she fills the kettle and, while she waits for it to boil, looks through the cupboard in case there are any clothes packed away that are better suited to the spring air than her winter gear. It’s mostly full of boxes she shoved in there to get them out of the way, but right at the bottom, there’s a package. Daragh brought it round after the funeral, a gift that Emma never had the chance to give, but Isabel couldn’t bring herself to open it.

She finishes making her cup of tea, then retrieves the parcel. Two shopping bags, taped shut – Emma bought them while she was living with Leo, right before she was taken.

Isabel opens the first at the kitchen table, mug in hand, and laughs aloud when she realises it’s a pair of ripped and faded black jeans. The second contains a leather jacket.

You were serious about that portrait, weren’t you? Isabel shrugs the jacket on over her pyjamas. It fits, despite the muscle she’s gained, but there’s a hard lump in the pocket. She reaches in and finds a small box, containing a pair of earrings and a note paperclipped to some money.

Get your hair done, Bel, it says. It’s on me.

Bit of unsubtle pathetic fallacy there, if we take the winter as a metaphor for grief and healing, but hey.

But now there’s only a week between these events, and we don’t see Isabel’s decision to dye her hair – only the results of it. I gave Isabel blue hair with one side shaved because, at eighteen, I desperately wanted this for myself and was far too shy to actually do it, but anyone who’s seen pictures of me aged nineteen or twenty will know that eventually I did shave one side and dye the rest a variety of colours (with blue being my favourite). They might imagine I gave Isabel my own characteristics as a kind of self-insert, but it was actually the opposite – she had it first.

One of the other big differences with the early versions of the final scene is that Michael’s mother, Angela, was present for many of them, and Isabel’s revenge was against them both. Obviously, Angela is no longer involved in the events of the book, and has actually been dead for quite a long time before it starts. Including her grave in this scene was sort of a nod to her earlier presence at this point of the book, but it’s also a way to explain Michael’s actions – his lack of resistance, his general despair. We know that he was traumatised by Angela’s death, and that Judith capitalised on this as a way to manipulate him; now, having lost any hope of safety in the arms of the Ryans’, he’s got no one left in the city to turn to, and no guild to take him in.

Unlike Isabel.

Ronan’s presence in the final scene is an innovation of the sixth draft, and since then has always taken more or less the same form that it takes in the finished book. It’s an ending that tells us the story isn’t over yet – that Isabel’s time with Comma has only just begun, and that she hasn’t succeeded at escaping the guild, despite her best efforts. We’ve also successfully isolated Isabel: she’s left Leo and Mortimer inside at the funeral, she’s killed Michael (her double, her almost-brother), and she’s kneeling beside Emma’s grave. The reliable catharsis of violence has failed her; revenge has proved unsatisfying, and now that it’s done, there’s nothing left to hope for in terms of closure. Nobody is here for her in this moment, except Ronan.

And Ronan isn’t there to comfort her. Just to use her.

Some readers (those who didn’t realise the book was the first in a trilogy, for the most part) have found it too abrupt, too open-ended, and with The Hummingbird Killer ending even more suddenly, with a cliffhanger, I’ve felt significant pressure when working on book three to make sure the ending feels solid and everything important is wrapped up, with just enough ambiguity to leave doors open for the imagination to work.

I’ll be the first to admit that as an author, I struggle with endings. I’m not a planner, so I don’t often know exactly where I’m going until I get there. The Butterfly Assassin is one of the rare exceptions to that, actually, because I knew the approximate plot of book two and even some of book three right from the start, so I knew where I needed to get us in the end… I just also knew that wasn’t an end, yet.

It’s difficult as a debut author, though, because you can’t rely on selling the whole trilogy, and you need to make sure the first book can stand on its own. Which I tried to do (reviewers are torn on whether they think I succeeded!): I tried to give Isabel a coherent character arc, even though it isn’t a character arc that’s finished, and I tried to make sure she either failed or succeeded at her various goals (escaping her parents, success; escaping the guild, fail) rather than leaving them incomplete. I’ve read some deeply unsatisfying first instalments of series where none of the character’s goals or development were wrapped up in the first book, and that always makes me feel like they only gave me half the book.

So, I wanted to get Isabel to a place that felt narratively satisfying, while also being sure that we were all set up for book two. But not a cliffhanger, because people don’t tend to love those from authors they don’t yet trust to pick things up again in a satisfying way. I was prepared to either sell just the first book, or the whole trilogy.

What actually happened was that I sold two books. The Butterfly Assassin and The Hummingbird Killer. And that was… honestly, possibly the worst case scenario on a story level, though better from my point of view than selling one. The ending of The Butterfly Assassin would be an unsatisfying place to end Isabel’s story, and a rather sad one, but it would work. The end of The Hummingbird Killer, though… well, it would make me look like an edgelord trying to make everyone miserable, for starters, but it also leaves Isabel in a far more precarious, transitional position, and would be much less narratively satisfying. Book two is where I break everything – book three is where I intended to fix it.

Fortunately, we did, in the end, sell book three as well, and I got the chance to fix the things I broke – well, those that can be fixed. But those who are lost are still lost, and not coming back. Some people told me that until the funeral scene, they really thought I was going to find a way for Emma not to actually be dead, but I have to say, I find that deeply irritating in books when I’ve already mourned for a character and invested emotions in their loss, so I don’t tend to pull that kind of fake-out.  

I do like to give characters time to process their grief, though. I think it’s an essential part of making the deaths hit for readers, but I also think it’s part of the process by which tragedy becomes comforting – catharsis rather than angst, comfort rather than harm. I like tragedies to feel healing, not because nothing bad happens but because terrible things happen and life goes on.

Life goes on. And keeps going on. Even when it’s unbearable, even when we don’t want it to, even when it feels catastrophically rude that it should do so. How dare it go on? But it does. And we endure. And grief doesn’t necessarily go away, but it becomes easier to carry.

Isabel isn’t ready to carry it yet; she’s hardly ready to pick it up in the first place. But allowing her to acknowledge that it’s there is the first step towards that. It’s not revenge that will bring her peace, in the end. It’s time, and the chance to heal.

She’ll get the former, but the latter will be largely out of her reach – at least for a little while. But we’ll get there in the end.

Just as we have come to the end of this readalong. (Although I could, if I were desperate, write a whole post about the author’s note, or the epigraph, or the dedication…)

It’s been a commitment. I won’t lie, I don’t think I anticipated writing 2/3rds of another novel when I started this readalong back in September. It’s achieved my goal of encouraging some comments on my blog, after all these years of silence, though it still hasn’t quite prompted the lively comment section discussions I might have hoped for. To those who have stuck around and shared their thoughts, though, I am immensely grateful to you.

If you’ve enjoyed this series: you’re welcome, I will probably never do this again, thanks for reading. If you’ve been waiting eagerly for it to be over: I’m amazed you’re reading this, also I’m sorry, it’s over now. And if you have finished The Butterfly Assassin (recently or longer ago), please consider leaving a review on Amazon/Goodreads/Waterstones/wherever else you can find to leave a review. They really do help with visibility, and I would be extremely grateful.

But for now: tell me your thoughts on this chapter, on this ending, on this whole book, on the readalong as a format, any and all comments you may have. It’s not your last chance to comment on my blog (you’re extremely welcome to comment on my non-readalong posts in future), but it’s your last chance to comment on this readalong, so I hope to see lots of you in the comment selection below.

Much love <3

28/11, Funebro (TBA Readalong)

Dear friends, I said we were close to the end of this readalong and now we are on the final chapter of the book, and the penultimate post I will make in this series. I’m not sure what I’ll blog about once this is over; it has resulted in more blog posts than I’ve written in about the last five years put together, and I’m keen not to lose the momentum, while also relieved that I’ll be able to relax about this shortly. Your thoughts on what you’d like to hear from me next would be appreciated – drop them in the comments.

On the 28th of November, Isabel deals with the aftermath of yesterday’s terrible, very bad, absolutely no good day. Specifically, she deals with grief for Emma.

We’ve talked about grief before in this readalong, and how important it is to me that character deaths have weight to them, so that it feels like the reader is actually supposed to care about their loss. Emma’s death happens quickly, amidst a lot of unfolding action that makes it difficult for Isabel to stop and process what’s actually happened, so the first half of this chapter is the first chance she really gets.

It’s something that’s changed since the earlier drafts, since I didn’t always know how to bridge the transition from action scene to funeral. In the fifth draft, there was a lot of awkward aftermath to the escape from Katipo, exploring the exact logistics of how Isabel got back to the hospital and how they transported Emma’s body – none of which we needed, from a narrative point of view. Moreover, since the earlier drafts involved a subplot about Isabel’s desperation to move out of the hospital and I needed to show her achieving at least one goal, that draft also paused between climax and aftermath to show Isabel moving house – with Daragh and Mortimer’s help.

I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to fit this scene into the readalong, but I decided to make a space for it, because I need you to appreciate the pure concentration of dad energies that Mortimer and Daragh are bringing to this scene:

Daragh plugs the new kettle in. “Who wants a cup of tea?”

“Hold on a moment,” says Mortimer. “I haven’t unpacked the mugs yet.”

“I told you that you didn’t have to help,” Isabel says to him. “You’re not even supposed to be here. You should make the most of your fugitive status to do as little as possible.”

“I’m not a fugitive,” he says. “I’m just…”

“A protected civilian,” says Daragh. “Which is more or less the same thing.”

“Your flat’s as safe as mine,” says Mortimer. “And you’re not short on space.”

The flat has a spare room – a reminder that Isabel was meant to have a flatmate. Emma should have lived with her. Emma should have lived. “On your own head be it. I could do with a cuppa, Daragh.”

“Finally, an answer.” The doctor flicks the kettle’s switch and hunts for teabags among the shopping bags. Isabel leaves him to it, curling up on the sofa they found in the secondhand furniture shop down the road. She has a feeling Daragh’s avoiding something or someone; there’s no other reason he should use his day off to help her move house. Maybe he’s short of things to do now that she’s not dying anymore.

I have been joking since about 2014 that Daragh and Mortimer are Isabel’s gay dads. While it isn’t canon in the sense that they’re not confirmed as being in a relationship – although I do maintain a headcanon that they’re dating throughout book 2 and Isabel just hasn’t noticed, because she is deeply oblivious to that kind of thing – they have certainly nominated themselves to a substitute paternal role, and Daragh at least is confirmed to be gay (or possibly bi, but I read him as gay) by virtue of his relationship with Christopher. Thus, gay dads even if they are being gay dads separately. If they happen to meet and discover they have things in common as a result of that, well… somebody in this book deserves to be happy.

In the fifth draft, I think the two had met considerably more times during the course of the book than they have in the published version, which is why we do not get their powerful dad energies at this stage. Which means we were robbed of moments like this:

She wraps her hands tighter around her mug of tea. “You know, I can probably manage the rest by myself. You guys should go home, get some rest.”

“Are you sure?” Daragh looks concerned. “I don’t like the thought of you being alone.”

“It’s getting late. You’ll pick me up for the funeral tomorrow, won’t you?”

“Yes, but…”

“I’ll be fine. I could use some time to think.”

“If you’re sure.” He gathers his things and looks at Mortimer: “Is it safe for you to travel home?”

“With you to guard me, what could I possibly fear?”

Mortimer, please.

But don’t worry, it’ll be visible in The Hummingbird Killer regardless of how you read their relationship. For now, the paternal energies are focused on Daragh, and this scene closes with a description that’s existed for a very long time: the exhausted guardian angel of a girl who does the devil’s bidding.

This line… well, okay, I’ll admit it. This line was a darling I couldn’t kill. This line shouldn’t exist, because Espera is a secular city where public religion is outlawed. Isabel, who is our point of view character, has never read the Bible; she has never been taught about angels; she may have come across Christian references in books that she’s read, but at this point in her life, she hasn’t read a lot of books. This is a metaphor that does not belong to her worldview, and I should have cut it the moment I did enough worldbuilding to realise that.

But… I didn’t want to. Allow me this small ‘error’, please; allow me to step outside of Isabel’s head for one line to properly describe Daragh. Allow me to pretend that Isabel has read enough books to have come across this concept, and is drawing on it in this moment, because I couldn’t find any better way to describe him in this moment, as he dozes beside Isabel’s bed because he doesn’t want to leave her to face her nightmares alone.

I love Daragh, truly, I do. He is just so kind, endlessly; he carries a heavy weight of grief, and he uses it to help lighten the load of others.

So let’s talk about that grief, and specifically, let’s talk about Christopher. A lot of what’s on the page about him in this chapter has already been mentioned in the readalong: I talked about him on 29/10, and about his art, and about how I’ve always seen him as a foil for Emma. Now that parallel becomes even clearer, and Isabel asks Daragh how he coped with his grief, because she doesn’t know how to cope with hers.

I wanted, in placing these relationships side-by-side like this, to make it very clear that Isabel’s platonic friendship with Emma was just as important and just as powerful as Daragh’s romantic relationship with Christopher. So often in life and in fiction, friendships are treated as subordinate and lesser; when it comes to grief, without a clearly defined label of what you meant to each other, it’s hard to explain the depth of mourning one can feel for a friend.

Some of you may be aware that I’m currently a PhD student researching friendship in the later Ulster Cycle. As such, I’ve been reading a lot about historical conceptions of friendship – a relationship that is by no means clearly defined or obviously separate from kinship, service, or what we’d now call romantic love. Among other books and articles, I recently reread Halperin’s Heroes and Their Pals in One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, and was struck by this:

Death is the climax of the friendship, the occasion of the most extreme expressions of tenderness on the part of the two friends, and it weds them forever (in the memory of the survivor, at least). Indeed, it is not too much to say that death is to friendship what marriage is to romance. (p. 79)

Halperin is writing about a specific formulation of heroic friendships, often tried and tested in combat situations, and his examples include Achilles and Patroclus, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and David and Jonathan. There are a number of medieval pairings I would see as belonging to this same paradigm, and often – although not always – this pattern of death-as-climax is repeated there. A character dies, and their death allows the other to express the depth of his attachment and affection through his grief; to use terms of endearment; to describe the other as half of his soul; etc etc.

This is not a general statement about friendship, but historically, too, I find that friendship and death often go together, not because friendship is doomed, but because death is what often gives it voice: shared graves, poems, mourning verses. There are few opportunities, in life, to declare a friend the most important thing in your life – although the world of brotherhood oaths and formalised rituals had more opportunities than we do now – but death can create opportunity.

Looking back at The Butterfly Assassin in the light of this, I wondered if I believed this, and/or if I had accidentally written Isabel and Emma’s friendship to follow a similar pattern. After all, death crystallises a friendship at a certain point: there is no longer any possibility of it fading, of a falling out destroying the connection, of one turning their back on the other. The friendship is frozen forever in the state that it was in at the time of death, and in this case, that was Emma risking her own safety to come back for Isabel because she refused to leave her behind – certainly not a low point for their connection.

And it’s certainly true that Isabel doesn’t find it very easy to express her affection for Emma while Emma is still living; as we’ll see in the final post in this series, it’s only at the funeral that she’s really able to give it voice. Perhaps this isn’t the most extreme expression of tenderness between the two – I would argue a lot of that comes from Emma bullying Isabel into believing she’s worth something – but it’s certainly a rare case of Isabel actually saying her feelings out loud.

But to think of friendship as something that can only climax with death is a very depressing way to think of it. It sets you up for stories where happy endings can only come from other types of relationship, like romance, and locks platonic affection away into the realm of grief. It’s understandable to have these patterns and paradigms in epics and tragedies, where the hero is always doomed to die in the end anyway, and the friend’s death only prefigures that – but what about a modern novel, one not bound by the prophecies of epic?

Well, that’s where we need to build new paradigms. Better ones. The Butterfly Assassin on its own is a tragedy; the trilogy as a whole is not. But Emma’s death belongs to the tragic portion of the story. Her death solidifies her in the position of Isabel’s first friend, and establishes an undying connection between them; Isabel will always be changed by the fact that she knew Emma, and many of her actions throughout the trilogy will be shaped by that fact.

Perhaps, then, we could argue that death is the climax of this friendship, crystallising it at its most intense moment. But this can’t be the only type of friendship we believe in, or there’s no hope for anything. That’s why it’s so important that unlike Achilles, vengeful with grief, or Cú Chulainn, injured and mourning,* Isabel is not alone as she endures this aftermath. She has Daragh, who knows this grief, and has survived it, and who can therefore reassure her that it is survivable. She has Mortimer. She will have Leo – briefly, in the second half of this chapter, and more in The Hummingbird Killer.  

And this, in the end, is what this trilogy is really about: not being alone. Being forced to face your own darkness again, and again, to go down into the depths of yourself like any tragic hero doomed to destroy his own story – but to have people there holding your hand while you do it. Even when you try to push them away! Even when you don’t think you deserve it! In fact, especially when you don’t think you deserve it.

Death and suffering offer opportunities for friendship because they provide new ways for others to demonstrate to Isabel that she is loved. To hold her when she’s mourning. To take care of her when she’s sick. To yell at her when she’s lost in self-loathing. Perhaps that, then, is the paradigm we should be looking for.

Emma’s funeral is held on the fifth of December, so we have a short pause now. I expect you need it, after the last few days (I certainly do). I will go back to looking at medieval and early modern friendship, and all the complicated terminology used to define it and all the ways it defies definition.

But before I go, here’s something to think about, and to offer your thoughts on in the comments (other thoughts also welcome). When early reviews for this book were coming in, somebody told me that they hardly noticed that it had no romance because the friendship between Isabel and Emma hit so many of the same emotional beats, and took its place within the narrative. This was, to some extent, what I was trying to do – I’ve read so many books where I couldn’t understand why certain relationships weren’t platonic instead, since that would have been more original and interesting – but it wasn’t something I was conscious of, and I wasn’t trying to map it onto any emotional beat sheet or anything like that.

There have also been reviewers, however, who picked up on that same detail but instead of it meaning they found the friendship fulfilling, it meant that they were disappointed when it didn’t flourish into a romance between Emma and Isabel. I never intended to write one; for me the pre-eminence of platonic friendship in this book is incredibly important to me. But I’m curious whether you, as readers, felt their relationship hit the same emotional spots as a romance would have done, and whether this made it more or less narratively satisfying in its final form.

Do leave your thoughts, and any other remarks, in the comments below, and I’ll see you back here in a week for the last post in this readalong.

*Normally I would be the first to argue that Cú Chulainn is not alone, because he has Láeg. However, when it comes to his lament for Fer Diad, Láeg is being somewhat less than supportive, more focused on telling Cú Chulainn to get up and make sure he’s ready for when they’re attacked again. It’s important to have a friend to take care of the practical concerns like this, but it means when it comes to emotionally processing the death of Fer Diad and the major shift in his understanding of what it means to be a hero – truly, I think Fer Diad’s death is the moment Cú Chulainn grows up – Cú Chulainn’s on his own, more than he has been at any other point in Táin Bó Cúailnge. And then he sends Láeg away to take a message for him, ensuring that he is actually on his own. Bad move. Get this boy a proper support network.

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.

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.

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…