Category: Writing

24/11, Infano (TBA Readalong)

We’re picking up speed again with our readalong of The Butterfly Assassin – you can expect daily posts for the next week or so as we accelerate towards the end of the book. (Which I had not totally remembered was the case and I have not written them, so imagine me hastily writing posts like that one Wallace & Gromit gif of laying train tracks frantically as you zoom along.)

I feel like I need to put some content warnings on this post. While it won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s read this chapter that we’re going to be talking about the deaths of teenagers, there are some details from past drafts that are considerably more gruesome and dramatic than what actually ended up in the book, so, fair warning, we’re talking about organ harvesting, sorry.

Today is the 24th of November, and on this day in 2029, Isabel Ryans kills two people: her sixteen-year-old target, Oliver Roe, and her classmate, Nick Larrington, who saw her with the body. No hesitation, no mercy, no witnesses. There was, arguably, a moment of hesitation, if we’re feeling charitable towards Isabel. But there was no space for mercy, and by the end of the chapter, there were no witnesses.

Isabel has always killed Nick – there has never been a version of the book where he survived – but I have to say, there were some drafts where the circumstances of that were considerably more unhinged. Notably, the second draft, in which she. Uh. Harvested his organs?

“I have to.”

“No, Isabel, you don’t. Whatever twisted ideas the guilds have put in your head, this is not your only choice!”

Isabel moves quickly, pinning him against the wall. He’s still shaking, looks like he’s about to throw up. “You don’t know anything about my choices,” she says.

“I know that killing me doesn’t have to be one of them,” he says. “If you’d told me I was a donor match I probably would have given you one of my kidneys anyway.”

“Fuck off.”

“I would. If it would have helped, I would have done it. But this… this isn’t the way to solve anything.” He breaks off. “You’re crying.”

“I’m dying,” she says. “I’m dying and they won’t help me if I’m not one of them. I have to – I have to be loyal. And you’ve been on their radar for a while now. It’s only chance that makes this any more than a stupid pointless death like all the other stupid pointless deaths in this city. You would have told someone. Next week. Next month. A year. You would have opened your mouth and Comma would have killed you.”

Look. Sometimes when I tell people that I completely rewrote this book from the ground up, they’re like, “Oh, I could never do that, I don’t like the idea of an editor making me change my book.” And leaving aside the fact that the most drastic changes in this book have all been ones I decided to make rather than being an editor’s recommendation… sometimes, the book is bad. Sometimes, the book involves your supposedly sympathetic viewpoint character harvesting her classmate’s organs.

Sometimes, yeeting a plot point is for the best.

Isabel required organ transplants right up until the fifth draft, if I remember rightly, at which point I decided it screwed the pacing too much to put her in recovery for that long, but poor Nick was no longer the unwilling donor after the second draft. Since the third draft, his death has been much the same as the final version: after Isabel kills her mark at the nightclub, she kills Nick to eliminate a witness. Some of the details have changed, but the basic scene has been the same.

Poor Nick. He really did only ever try to be Isabel’s friend. Sometimes, I think Nick’s the character I relate to most in this book – especially the reference in the early chapters to the fact that he sometimes cries while reading the news. I do the same. I’ve been doing that a lot recently, and you’d think with the constant barrage of atrocities, I’d get desensitised to it, but I don’t. I’m still haunted by it. I never want to be the kind of person who isn’t, if I’m honest, but I don’t think I’d survive in a city like Espera.

One thing I did rediscover when I was looking at the second draft was this little worldbuilding detail:

“Let’s go. Before anyone comes to see why the shot was fired.”

They’ll have given it the Esperan Fifteen – quarter of an hour to let whatever agents still in the area get out of there before you go and investigate. Give it less than that and you might find your own body joining the weekly murder figures. Could take a lot longer for anyone to come, if there’s nobody nearby, but it’s best not to push it.

The idea of the “Esperan Fifteen” makes sense, in a city like this – when you know assassins are operating in your vicinity, you’re not going to go running towards a gunshot to find out what happened, because 99% of the time, you already know what happened, and the only thing you’ll achieve if you do is end up a witness, and therefore dead. But at some point I stopped explicitly spelling that out in the book, and the phrase was lost; I’d forgotten about it until now.

And then there’s Oliver.

Until the sixth draft, Oliver didn’t have a name. He ended up being Oliver because nearly everybody in one of my writing group chats at the time had an Oliver in their books, often one who died, and it became, briefly, an in-joke, so when I realised he didn’t have a name, I gave it to him. It was important to me, that he should have a name in the end. That he should be a person.

Isabel does not know why Oliver is on the guilds’ hit list. She doesn’t know why somebody paid to eliminate a sixteen-year-old. She knows that the money was good, because Ronan told her; good enough that the guild didn’t turn the job down. And that’s the only information she has.

But I know.

Oliver’s backstory is traumatic in a way that I didn’t feel could be sensitively or meaningfully explored in this book, and therefore it cannot be on the page, or anywhere in the trilogy. He deserves more than a passing note, and there’s no space to give him one. Suffice to say that he was innocent, and killed to cover up the wrongdoings of others, and because those others were adults and they were rich and they were powerful, and he was young and poor, they were able to click their fingers and have the guild come running.

Ronan knew. Isabel didn’t. It probably wouldn’t have made a difference if she did, because she didn’t feel like she had any choice, either way. And there’s no good reason to kill a sixteen-year-old (or, indeed, anyone), so it’s not like she wouldn’t suspect that it was this kind of situation.

Oliver’s death is the first premeditated murder that Isabel commits in this book, and we’re 300 pages into it. We might expect it to be more difficult than it seems to be, but then we’d be forgetting who Isabel is, the upbringing she’s had. And I think it’s hard, as people who don’t live in Espera, to fully grasp the impact of living in a city where the guilds and their actions are so normalised, to the point where dying at the hands of the guilds is practically more common than dying of natural causes.

Still: It should be harder than this, to live with herself.

It’s harder in this draft than it was in earlier ones; that’s about as much as I can say about that, and that’s less because I was deliberately writing Isabel as colder-hearted in early drafts than because in general, emotions weren’t effectively layered into the book until much later than they should have been.

One difference, though, is that at the end of this chapter, Isabel imagines the judgment of the world, crying out in horror that the guilds would kill a teenager – just a child. And Isabel thinks, So was I.

But in the earlier drafts, like the third draft, it wasn’t faceless judgement from the media and the newspaper that Isabel feared – it was judgment from an imaginary version of Mortimer.

She’s sitting in Mortimer’s workshop. “What if the guilds killed children, too?” she asks him, and his expression is horrified. Her fingers twist around each other. She’s afraid.

“I’d protect them,” he says. “And I’d hunt down the bastards who did it.”

The dream merges, and she’s running from someone, being chased through a forest of city skyscrapers flickering with the LED lights of technological stars. It doesn’t take long for her dream self to realise that it’s Mortimer who is chasing her, hunting her down.

He pins her to the ground, one of the woodwork knives in his hand. “You killed children,” he says to her. “That boy was just a child.”

But he’s fading to blackness along with her surroundings, the dream melting away with her answer still on her lips: “So was I.”

The first part of this scene is a memory, a scene that happened early on in the third draft and was since cut. Mortimer’s protective instincts have been present from an early stage in the book’s development, but his abolitionist values less so. The rest is her imagination, and even the third draft’s Mortimer wouldn’t actually have tried to hurt her.

But I thought it was interesting, that her subconscious focused on him as the source of judgment. I’m not sure when I changed that, but it was striking to rediscover.

Anyway. Bit of a bleak chapter. Bit of a dark moment for Isabel – and the worst part is, it’s barely even a turning point in her arc, because the turning point was the decision, not acting on it. Tomorrow, we’ll see Isabel exploring some of the emotional consequences and the aftermath of this act, but for now, I want to know what you think.

Did this chapter change how you saw Isabel? Did you think her friendship with Nick would end like this? Does his death seem worse than Oliver’s, or does the personal connection make no difference?

Drop your answers, or any other thoughts on this chapter, in the comments, and I’ll see you back here soon.

22/11, Konsento – Part II (TBA Readalong)

Hi, everyone. It’s the 22nd of November and I’m back with the second half of chapter 28. I feel like my last post was pretty heavy, and I’d like to reassure you that this one won’t be quite so intense. At the same time, like… it’s the Anti-Military, Don’t Kill Children, Defund The Arms Industry book, I mean, it’s not like I can not relate it to current events and our government’s complicity in genocide. So I’m not going to apologise for that: I’ve always been writing this from my own pacifist perspective, and sometimes that comes out stronger than at other times.

But today, Isabel talks to Emma on the phone. And it’s not an easy conversation, because Emma and Isabel absolutely don’t see eye-to-eye on whether working for the guild is acceptable. Emma readily acknowledges that Isabel’s been put in an extremely shitty situation, but that doesn’t mean she’s okay with how Isabel is dealing with it – namely, by accepting her future in the guild as a done deal.

What I think is important about this conflict in their worldviews is that it’s not an abstract political disagreement. It isn’t that Emma thinks killing is wrong and Isabel doesn’t. It’s about their view of Isabel. Emma thinks Isabel is capable of putting goodness into the world and deserves the chance to try, and Isabel doesn’t, because every time she’s tried in the past, it’s blown up in her face.

And Isabel thinks Emma only believes her capable of goodness because she doesn’t see her clearly – because she’s created an idealised, victimised Isabel who can do no wrong and is projecting onto her. But Emma thinks it’s Isabel who can’t see herself clearly, because she has never been given the chance to be anything other than what the guild made her. It’s not that Emma doesn’t know who Isabel is or what she’s capable of; it’s that she doesn’t think that’s all there is.

(For the record, I’m on Emma’s side. I think book 3 will prove that.)

I try not to quote too extensively from the published book and to focus my quotations on unpublished drafts, but I have to pull out these lines:

‘You think all that’s inside you is darkness, Isabel, but I see light there. It’s small and it’s starved, but it’s there. And I wish you could see it too.’

‘A candle can’t do much against a black hole.’

‘So light another candle.’

I’m a Quaker. I’m not a very good one. I’m an ‘attender’ rather than a member, but even my attendance is poor; I don’t go to Meeting for Worship anywhere near as often as I should, and I regularly fall asleep in it when I do. Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly alienated from Quaker communities, I joke that I’m an Acquaintance rather than a Friend, although I would never say this about any other Quaker I met.

For those who aren’t familiar with Quakers, it’s a term used to refer to the Religious Society of Friends. Initially an offshoot of Protestant Christianity, Quakerism now has a fairly broad and expansive definition: there is no set creed, and while some Quakers would strongly consider themselves Christian and that’s still a major part of the community’s structure and ethos, I also know atheist Quakers, polytheist Quakers, Quakers who combine their practice with Buddhist or Jewish traditions, and many more. For me, it’s complicated, but I find part of the appeal of Quakers is that I don’t need to know where I stand on that in order to participate.

We meet in silence, and those who feel moved to speak can stand up and do so. Those who’ve been attending for 20 minutes and those who’ve been attending for 20 years are equally welcome to offer what’s called ‘spoken ministry’, but the silence is ministry too: it is part of what we give to the meeting. I’ve been in meetings where seven people spoke, and many others where nobody did.

(Note: I’m specifically talking about Quakerism in Britain, because it varies fairly significantly worldwide; some places have ‘programmed’ meetings, with a sermon and everything.)

Quakers are thus united – if they can ever be described as such – by shared values rather than by any particular creed. These are the five testimonies: peace, equality, simplicity, truth, and sustainability. (Together, they spell PESTS, because that’s what Quakers have historically been, with a long tradition of speaking truth to power and getting arrested for it.) The Peace testimony is often the one Quakers are known for, particularly in historical contexts; many people otherwise unfamiliar with Quakers will have come across the Friends Ambulance Unit in discussions of WWI, for example.

It was the Peace testimony that drew me to Quakers, originally, and the very first Meeting for Worship I attended was on Remembrance Sunday 2018. But there is slightly more to Quakers than that, and one of the other shared beliefs is the idea that everybody has the Light inside them – ‘that of God’, as it’s sometimes called. This Light, this God-ness, is conceptualised by some Quakers as the Christian God / Holy Spirit, by others as a kind of Divine Energy, by others as the innate goodness of humanity… ask two Quakers how they understand it, and you’ll get five answers.

But the important thing about this inner light is that it’s your responsibility. Your responsibility to nurture it. To let it grow. To reach out to it in others, to help them kindle it. To acknowledge it even in those who seem to have no goodness left.

When you grow up in a sin-focused Christian tradition where the basic message is that humanity is inherently sinful and needs to be ‘saved’ by an external power, it can be profoundly affecting to be told that you inherently contain goodness, and need to nourish it and let it thrive. You’re not waiting for divine intervention: you are building the divine in yourself, in the world around you, nurturing your own light.

Sometimes, it can be hard to see the light in people who are causing great harm. But the idea that everybody has the potential for goodness is fundamental to a worldview that believes ‘that of God’ – whether or not this is literally God – is found in people, and not in some abstract, distant plane of existence out of our reach. You’re looking for God? It’s right here, and if it’s so small that you can’t see it, then it’s time to nurture that Light, to let the divine grow. Chop chop. What are you waiting for?

Quakers love a light metaphor. I don’t know where I first heard the candle idea. No: that’s not quite true. I know where it was. I was at Westminster Quaker Meeting House, for a ‘Young Friends’ meeting, some time in early 2019. But I don’t know if I said it, or if somebody else did. Meeting can be like that, sometimes, the edges of the individual blurred: the silence isn’t about keeping separate from others, but being part of a community that is led forward together.

Sometimes, somebody said – maybe me, or somebody else, when the world is dark, it’s tempting to want to burn it all down. But it’s not always about setting it all on fire. Sometimes all we can do as individuals is light a candle. And then another candle. And then another one. Until eventually it’s light enough to see.

I’m paraphrasing, because it’s been nearly five years, but I have come back to this metaphor over and over again. I do want to burn it all down, sometimes. I feel useless that I can’t. I feel useless because the systems around me are so big and so violent and so unstoppable and I am powerless.

Except I’m not. Because I can light a candle. And my tealight of goodness, my single flickering wick of the divine, is not enough to see by. But I’ll light another. I’ll find others who are lighting candles of their own. And eventually, with enough small goodnesses and enough of a community, you can see enough to rebuild, rather than only tearing down.

A candle can’t do much against a black hole.

So light another candle.

I have seen these lines quoted in several reviews and Instagram posts, and I’m glad that they resonate. And they don’t have to be read in a spiritual way; they certainly don’t have to be read in a Quaker way. Emma is not a Quaker, and didn’t use that image with any reference the Divine, whether Christian or otherwise.

But I phrased it like that because of my Quakerism. Because I believe that we all have goodness inherent in us, but I also believe that goodness doesn’t grow when ignored or left alone. Goodness has to be nurtured; candles have to be lit; light has to be sought. We have the Light inside us, and it’s up to us to do something with it. It’s a responsibility, not an excuse.

A responsibility, but also an encouragement. Isabel has only ever seen her own darkness, and that’s all she’s been taught to nurture. The very idea that she has goodness in her, let alone that there is a path she could take to letting it flourish – one that can be slow, and gradual, and doesn’t have to be all or nothing – is a new one, and it’s not one she can process or act on immediately. She needs time for that: for now, she’s going to continue believing that Emma is wrong.

But this idea underpins the whole trilogy: no darkness is complete. Look for the light in it, and then do what needs to be done to help that light grow.

Unfortunately, sometimes the process of finding that light means going deeper into the darkness first, and that’s where the next chapter is going to take us. I’ll be back with that on the 24th. In the meantime, let me know if you have any thoughts on this chapter, or any questions based on what I’ve said today!

20/11, Konsento (TBA Readalong)

Hello, dear friends and readers. Today is the 20th of November, and I’m back with another post in our readalong of The Butterfly Assassin. I’m curious as to how many of you are still reading – I have one very dedicated commenter, but I suspect/hope there are more of you lurking – and for those who’ve checked out, I’d be interested to know. Is it that the readalong format doesn’t work for you in general, or is it more about this particular book at this specific time?

Because if it’s the latter, I sympathise. I really do. There have been many times when I’ve struggled to write Isabel at her worst and maintain sympathy for her amidst a world that makes those actions no longer hypothetical. The current situation in Gaza makes it hard to find entertainment in children under threat and teenagers in desperate situations just trying to survive, and I wouldn’t blame anyone who seeks distraction in kinder stories.

But this has been the case since I first wrote the book in 2014: it has always echoed and mirrored the worst things on the news, because it has always been drawn from them. Espera is fictional, but the UK arms industry isn’t. The guilds are fictional, but the military recruitment of teenagers isn’t. These characters are fictional, but thousands – millions – of people worldwide have been deemed by governments to be less important than profit and politics, weapons and war, and they have suffered because of it.

So yes, I struggle sometimes to look at Isabel’s hardest decisions and most unforgiveable actions and offer lighthearted commentary as though they are ‘only’ fiction. They’ve never been only fiction. But that’s why stories matter.

And today’s post deals, in a preliminary way, with one of those hard decisions and unforgiveable actions, because on the 20th of November, Ronan comes to visit Isabel, and gives her a job. A target. A mark to eliminate.

A sixteen-year-old boy.

And Isabel takes it, because she’s trapped in a corner with her back against the wall and she told him, I’ll do anything, so now she’s got to. If it’s going to happen anyway, resisting will only cause her more pain; being forced won’t save anyone, and will make it suck for her, so why not agree?

This is a knife you’re using on yourself, says Daragh, and he’s probably right, but there’s a kind of agency in seeing the bad thing coming and taking control over it yourself, rather than waiting for it to become inevitable and unavoidable in somebody else’s hands. Crucially, too, this chapter underlines the difference between Daragh and Isabel. He thinks that she still has choices, other ways to work for the guild; Isabel thinks there is no way of working for the guild that wouldn’t make her complicit in their actions, so she might as well be the worst of them.

I’m not saying that Isabel is wrong about the former – I think being part of the ‘blood-soaked machinery of Comma’, as she puts it, does always come with some complicity about the guild’s actions, because every role within the organisation is geared towards enabling those ends. But that doesn’t mean she’s right about the latter. If her goal was really to do as little harm as possible, then there would be ways of doing that, ways to take the path of least damage. She could, like Daragh, work in the medical division, and save lives rather than take them.

But Isabel isn’t thinking about net harm; she’s thinking about being able to live with herself. And on that level, she sees no difference. Guild is guild is guild. A knife feels like honesty when violence is the only truth you’ve ever been offered.

And Isabel is so stubbornly determined to let others think the worst of her. Here, she doesn’t even want Daragh’s sympathy, because she doesn’t believe she deserves it – she’s certainly not going to beg for it, or make excuses for herself. She’s embracing her villain status, because she feels it’s inevitable and because she doesn’t believe she deserves to be anything else.

Daragh sees through that, defuses it with a mention of Emma, and then:

You’re allowed to be loved, Isabel. You know that, don’t you?

These are the moments that mean everything and are, simultaneously, the hardest to hold as true at times when the world is particularly cruel, the times when I don’t want to hold any love in my heart for people who would kill children regardless of their trauma or lack of agency. I don’t want to love them, because love feels like forgiveness, and I have no right to forgive those people. I am not the one harmed by them.

Forgiveness, though. It’s not the be all and end all of everything, is it? Redemption and forgiveness aren’t the same thing; second chances and forgiveness aren’t the same thing; peace and forgiveness aren’t the same thing; love and forgiveness aren’t the same thing.

Love, in moments like this, is about recognising humanity. You, too, are a human being, and we are bound to each other, and we owe each other safety, and your life is connected to mine. It’s not a softness – it’s an act of recognition that comes with obligations. No, that word’s too negative. Responsibilities, maybe. A shared contract of humanity, the question of what we owe to each other. Isabel has spent so much of her life not being loved; it’s unsurprising that she’s unpractised at doing it in return. It’s uncomfortable to receive it, too: she would rather hide from it.

This plot point has long existed in some form, but this chapter has changed considerably over the years. It was a very late addition for Ronan to hold Isabel’s poison over her head as a bargaining chip, but that, I think, added a layer to the impossibility of her decision, since no matter what she chooses, she is being used to harm others.

In earlier drafts, almost all the emotional complexity was absent; as late as the fifth draft, Isabel agreed readily to the job, simply for the chance to leave the hospital, with no hesitation. It should be obvious why I changed that – while likeable is a boring criterion for a protagonist, I still wanted readers to be able to sympathise.

What I found really interesting looking back at the old drafts is that usually Ronan is the one who gives this file to Isabel, but in the October 2020 draft – the version that went on sub, and sold to Simon & Schuster – she chooses it. We don’t see that moment happen. The first half of the chapter is exploring a lot of the same emotions as this one, with Daragh challenging Isabel on her decision to go back into the field as a kind of self-destructive defence mechanism, but Isabel has sought out Ronan and asked him for a job that will then enable her to leave the hospital, because she thinks that’s the only way she can protect Emma from the city’s dangers.

“Being physically fit enough to kill isn’t the same as being ready to go back in the field.” Ronan regards her. “Daragh doesn’t think you’d pass a psych assessment.”

“He’s wrong.”

“He’s your doctor.”

“Yeah, not my psychologist. Did he tell you not to sign off on this?”

“He expressed concerns.”

Of course Daragh would never actually stop her. He’s too concerned about her autonomy for that. If Isabel wants to self-flagellate, he’ll let her, but he’ll do everything he can to stop her getting her hands on the whip in the first place. Sometimes, it’s admirable. Right now, it’s pissing her off.

“You want me in the field,” says Isabel. “I want me in the field. There shouldn’t be any conflict here.”

Ronan watches her for a moment more, then sighs deeply. “All right.”

Somehow it doesn’t feel like a victory. “You mean it?”

“One assignment,” he says. “You fuck it up, or it fucks you up, and you’re out until Daragh says otherwise. We’ll discuss your housing situation afterwards.”

He agreed. He’s going to let her leave. “I won’t fuck it up,” she promises.

“I’d hope not.” He doesn’t believe her, but he’s not arguing, and that’s a gift horse she’s not about to look in the mouth. She turns to leave, and is almost to the door when Ronan speaks again. “Isabel?” he says. “For your sake, pick an easy one.”

Crucially, in this draft we don’t know anything about the mark until we meet him. We don’t see Isabel choose the file, we don’t know whether his age gives her pause, we don’t question why the guild would be targeting a teenager. We only know that Ronan told her to choose, and she did.

This Isabel is a more active participant in this act of violence. Does that make her a more culpable one? Our Isabel still chose, still agreed, even if her options were narrower and her decision more directly coerced; some would argue there’s no difference, when the end result is the same. I think there is a difference; if I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t have changed it.

But. I don’t know. I’ve been thinking, as I write this chapter, about the way both of these chapters have Isabel accepting her own unlovability, and Daragh saying: you’re allowed to be loved. You know that, don’t you? Except in the published book, it comes after she’s made this decision, after she’s accepted the worst version of herself because she thinks it’s the only viable way forward. And in the 2020 draft, it comes before she’s made this decision, but it doesn’t stop her from making it.

I’m not going to go any further with analysing that; I’d rather leave it open for you to think about how that change affects how you read Isabel in this moment. Do you sympathise with Isabel in the published book, when she takes that file from Ronan? Would you still sympathise with an Isabel who wasn’t handed that file but chose it for herself, out of all the jobs Comma could be doing in the city that week?

Does it matter, in the end, who dies, if somebody is going to? And does it matter who killed them, if the whole system enabled it, and everybody within that system is partly responsible for perpetuating it?

What does this culpability mean for us, now, in the systems we live in, and knowing the violence those systems enable?

I don’t have the answers. I wrote this trilogy because I didn’t, and I needed a way of thinking about them. But sometimes thinking with fiction is more bearable than thinking with reality, so it’s important that we do it, and use that understanding in the real world.

I’ll see you in a couple of days for a phone call with Emma, and one of my favourite lines in the book.

05/11, Elektoj (TBA Readalong)

Hello friends! I am back with another post in the TBA readalong series, but first, a couple of pieces of news:

  1. The Butterfly Assassin was the winner of the Young Adult category at the Sheffield Children’s Book Awards on Friday! Yay!
  2. The Hummingbird Killer is now available in French, and the French translation of The Butterfly Assassin has been released in a smaller ‘poche’ edition, so it can be more affordable for French readers now. Also yay!

Now on with the story…

On the fifth of November, Isabel Ryans has visitors.

Two of them, to be precise: first Ronan Atwood, and then Michael. (With a brief Daragh interlude in between, but he is more or less the only constant in Isabel’s life, and so not a visitor.)

Ronan asks Isabel to work in her father’s lab. Isabel refuses and insists that the poison she created is destroyed – not being her father’s work, it doesn’t automatically belong to the guild. Whether or not that argument convinces Ronan, he agrees, because it puts Isabel even further into his debt, and makes it very easy to ask her to go back into the field. To become a contract killer.

This is a scene that went through some considerable changes over the years. Isabel’s decision to kill for Comma needed to be a difficult one: we needed to feel her internal conflict. Over time, as the plot shifted and the order of events changed, her reasons varied; in many of the early drafts, she killed to earn money for a ransom, although the exact nature of the need for that went through a few variations.

But in many of the early drafts, Isabel agreed a little too easily to do the very thing she’s spent the entire book trying to avoid up until this point, and I knew I needed to trap her between a rock and a hard place for that decision to feel both sympathetic and narratively satisfying. If she agreed too easily it ran the risk of a) making Isabel seem like a cold-blooded killer, which might put people off, or b) making it seem like she never actually tried to leave the guild.

Since she wasn’t always responsible for the poison, that element of Ronan’s negotiation was a late addition. What is Isabel afraid of? Becoming her father. How can he use that against her?

Ronan is very good at this kind of thing. It’s one of his talents: finding people’s vulnerabilities, and exploiting them, often subtly enough that they don’t realise they’re being manipulated until the last minute. Whether he ever thought Isabel would say yes to working in the lab, I can’t be sure; I suspect he expected her to refuse, but didn’t necessarily anticipate her reasoning. Isabel certainly thinks she’s thrown him off balance, but it’s always hard to tell whether Ronan’s actually surprised, or merely pretending to be because he thinks it’ll be tactically useful in a negotiation.

In the sixth draft, when he first offered her this choice between lab and field work, we see a slightly softer Ronan:

“Not that,” she says. “Bribe me with the world, threaten everything I care about, I don’t care. I’m not going back in the lab.”

Ronan is silent, and then he says, “Okay.”

“I won’t… I won’t be like my father.” That doesn’t quite put words to her fear. She tries again: “I’m not my father.” That comes closer. “I refuse to be my father.”

“Okay.”

It’s suspicious, the way he abandons argument. “But you wanted…”

“I wanted to fill the gap he left behind. I see now I was wrong to think I could use you to do that.”

It’s not an apology; she doesn’t think she’ll ever hear Ronan Atwood say that he’s sorry. And she knows, too, that this doesn’t free her of her obligations and the deal she made.

“So you want me back in the field,” she says. This was always what he wanted, she suspects. That’s why he’s not arguing; he always knew she’d say no. Offered the lab option first in case it looked like a concession, so that he could drag her in with this one.

“Not yet. You’re not strong enough.” But he doesn’t deny it.

Here in the final version, though, it’s all tactics, all negotiation, less personal. And we have that line I rescued from an earlier chapter: Ronan’s eyes are lazy pools of brackish water as they rake over her. Why was that piece of description so important to keep? I don’t know. But I kept it.

This is a pivotal moment – Isabel negotiates her own return to the field, trapping herself further within the guild. It’s also fairly tense, which is why I followed it up directly with Daragh and one of my favourite moments in the book. Namely, the revelation that Ronan owns a very small, very cute cat called Rory.

Rory is named after my mentor, Rory Power, who used to have a dog called Finn. In appearance, Rory the cat is modelled loosely on my sister’s cat Tyler, who is a small fluffy vampire with cat anxiety who likes to lick the shower tray and hide under things. Behold, a beast:

A long-haired black cat with a white patch on his chest lying upside down on a blanket with his paws curled up. He has protruding fangs, like a little vampire, and yellow eyes. He is looking directly at the camera.

The idea of Ronan wearing jeans and occasionally relaxing enough to laugh and hang out with his pet, however, has no direct model. But it’s important to me to emphasise that Ronan, despite his many, many moral flaws, is a human being. A human being capable of doing or enabling a very large amount of evil. And also a human being capable of being very kind to a small animal – one he rescued from a gutter in October 2028, if the rough beginnings of an unfinished short story I have on my hard drive are to be believed.

Ronan Atwood is not a cat person.

He’s not a dog person, either; to listen to his cousin, you would be forgiven for assuming he’s generally just not much of a person. Daragh is probably joking, but Ronan vaguely resents it regardless, in the secret way that he resents things without allowing a glimpse of the emotion to show on his face. He knows the truth of his own personhood, locked very tightly behind the mask that allows him to be extremely good at his job and extremely hard to catch in a moment of weakness. If others can’t see it, it’s because they’re not supposed to.

He had thought his cousin knew him better than that, though. But if he can fool even Daragh… well, that’s almost a victory. Albeit one that’s more painful than he would have anticipated.

He is, however, specifically not a cat person, even if he is a person, which is why he is at a loss for what to do with the small, pathetic bundle of black fur he just fished out of the blocked drain a few yards from his front door. It manages a squeak, reassuring him that it is in fact alive, and tries to crawl inside his jacket. He momentarily resists, fearful for the state of his shirt, before he realises that the damage has already been done and gives in. The kitten, delighted by the warmth, wiggles inside, where it achieves its goal of making him damp.

He’s not sure what to do now.

This short story reveals many things about Ronan, including that this happened in October 2028, just under a year before The Butterfly Assassin begins, while he was still dealing with the cleanup after Cocoon was shut down. We learn several things about Ronan’s perspective on Isabel and Michael that we do not learn in the trilogy. One day I will finish this story and it will give us all several emotions.

In the meantime, however, back to the book, and to Rory. Rory the cat is the only unproblematic character in this entire trilogy, frankly, and she has a devoted fan club. I think there has been more fan art of her than of anyone else (i.e. three whole pieces of art). It’s what she deserves.

And finally, this chapter brings us Michael. This reunion brings a range of emotions. Michael understands Isabel, in a way that few people do; they have an easy humour together, the sarcasm of a shared past. But he’s also angry with her. Angry that she’s relying on Comma rather than hunting down her parents – and is he wrong, that Comma isn’t a safe place to rest? Of course not. It never has been. But it’s safer for Isabel than for him, because they want her, and he’s expendable. We see here that Michael is painfully aware of this fact, because he’s faced that threat before.

(That short story about Ronan tells us:

Ronan had very quietly voted against the motion to have the boy executed – a waste of money, really, after everything that was spent on training those children, and a PR problem waiting to happen if word ever got out. He is unafraid of anybody assuming it was sentiment, since nobody has ever assumed Ronan Atwood does anything out of sentiment. But he sometimes wonders whether he did the right thing, letting the Ryans’ take Michael in.

Is this canon? No. Not yet. Not exactly. But maybe it’s true, regardless.)

And Michael doesn’t let sentiment stop him from being honest with Isabel when he thinks she needs it – for example, accusing her of turning into her mother. It’s surprising that he uses this as an insult, a weapon against her, when we know from their earlier conversations that Michael was always closer to Judith than to Ian, but he knows it’ll work on Isabel, and it does.

All of this is a late addition – of course it is, most of Michael’s characterisation didn’t show up until the sixth draft. In that draft, we had a couple of visits from Michael here, less tense than this one, and a Meaningful Card Game or two. I was into the Meaningful Card Games at that point – attributing significance to different cards, that sort of thing. I used to play a lot of clock solitaire when I was stressed, a trait I gave to Isabel, and I think some of my unconscious associations with certain cards fed into the way I wrote it, too.

“Screw you.” He had the king of clubs all this time. Isabel stares at his winning hand for a moment more. The sneaky bastard. She wants to say that he cheated, but she has no proof, and he always was annoyingly good at this game.

The king of clubs. Ian Ryans. She remembers turning that card repeatedly in her nocturnal games of clock solitaire, so reliably she could almost predict the exact order. Diamonds, hearts, clubs, spades. There was always that spade near the end, right when she thought she’d won. She tries not to read too much into it; she knows what Michael would say if she told him: “You’re too clever to be so superstitious, Isabel.” And he’s not wrong. She knows it’s chance, probability, and her own subconscious that sees meaning in the cards. If the nine of hearts seems to recur, it must be because it’s a little bent, easily picked up, not because it means anything. And as for the king of clubs…

“Isabel?” says Michael, and she realises she’s staring at the cards, unmoving.

She shakes herself out of it. “Sorry. I just got … lost, for a minute.”

There’s a bunch of symbolism in there, but for the most part they were not useful words, and got yeeted in an attempt to fix the book’s pacing. No more clock solitaire, and significantly more tension between Isabel and Michael at this point in the book.

I think that change is for the better, but maybe you disagree. Or maybe you have strong opinions about Rory the cat, or about Ronan’s negotiating tactics, or about the choice Isabel makes in this chapter. Did she do the right thing, do you think, prioritising destroying her poison and her capacity to become her father over her only chance of not ending up in the field?

You’ve got a good couple of weeks to answer these questions (“Isabel spends the next two weeks in the training gym”, begins chapter 28), and who knows, maybe I’ll even post about something else at some point in that window. (Or not. Which is, I fear, more likely.) I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

30/10, Korinklino (TBA Readalong)

Welcome back to our readalong of The Butterfly Assassin! It’s a weird dark time in the world right now, and with the winter drawing in, the darkness is literal as well as metaphorical. I’m wrapping up my line edits for book three, Moth to a Flame, and finding it a strangely heavy experience to be working on a book about breaking cycles of violence and reimagining the future, while living in a world where those cycles seem to be spinning tighter by the day.

But today’s post is a slightly lighter one, which comes as something of a relief. We’re reading chapter 26, Korinklino – affection. In this chapter, Isabel has a conversation with Emma for the first time since she ended up in hospital and in the hands of Comma. Emma informs Isabel that she missed Emma’s birthday (it was on the 22nd, as I noted here), and they talk about terrible Esperan romance novels. Emma also challenges Isabel some of her long-held beliefs about herself, and what she deserves – notably, her not-quite-articulated assumption that she in some way deserves the pain she’s experienced, because of the harm she has helped to cause. (Never mind that that wasn’t exactly a free choice on her part, either.)

I’ve talked already about how important it is to me that Isabel is not perfect, and the fact that she still deserves better despite not being “innocent”. Questions of innocence and safety feel particularly pertinent at the moment, when harm is being articulated in terms of innocent women and children being killed – as though there are not also innocent men, and as though innocence is a prerequisite for life. I’ve been thinking a lot about that latter point, and how it relates to the concept of grievability, which I brought up earlier in the readalong. We are so ready to put lives into boxes: these are worth saving, and would be mourned if lost; these are acceptable collateral.

This is something I have been grappling with across this trilogy. It is, as limited 3rd-person narratives are wont to be, distinctly biased towards Isabel, its protagonist; her life is worth preserving, and therefore the choices she makes in the pursuit of survival can be justified. But I often find myself thinking of the unmourned characters in the background: unnamed, irrelevant, and just as dead.

This chapter isn’t dealing directly with those questions. But it does explore innocence, and what it means to have done harm. And in doing so, it touches on an idea that underpins much of the trilogy: that not being innocent does not equate to being undeserving of life, or safety, or even happiness. Emma tells Isabel she deserved better, and Isabel, at this stage in her life, cannot meaningfully believe her. It’s important that it was said, anyway, even if she wasn’t able to accept it. Sometimes the saying it is the part that matters.

As part of that conversation, we get to learn yet more about Isabel’s past, and about her relationship with her mother – mostly a sidenote in this book, compared to the immediate threat of her father’s influence – and all the ways Isabel has been taught to doubt her experience and downplay her own suffering. Which is pretty bleak and hardgoing, even with Emma there to immediately counter it with her affection, so central to this chapter.

We could probably dwell on that for a long time. But let’s not, because I promised you a lighter post. Let’s talk, instead, about the Worst Romance Novels of Espera.

I worry, on occasion, that those who read this book without knowing anything about my own reading habits will assume that this gentle mockery of a certain subtype of genre romance is because I don’t respect romance as a category. Many people don’t; it’s often derided, considered “trashy”, or otherwise overlooked despite more or less keeping large sections of publishing afloat. However, I want to stress that that is absolutely not how I feel about it: I read a significant amount of genre romance, mostly queer historicals (though I’ve been branching out lately), and have immense respect for romance authors.

It’s one of the reasons I’ve made a point of having other characters point out that a) these are very much the worst romance novels of Espera, and good ones do in fact exist, and b) even these, while vaguely horrifying in their premises, are not automatically badly written. We see this more in book two, when they come up again (truly, I love that Holly Emerald, Espera’s Most Notorious Romance Novelist, became a recurring figure).

Of course, I didn’t always read a lot of genre romance. And this trilogy is very notably lacking in romantic subplots, because teen me was extremely anti-romance and anti-sex in books, and wanted more YA without either. It’s one notable area where my teenage tastes and my adult tastes have diverged considerably (though, frankly, I still prefer to keep romance to genre romance novels and not have it take over the plot of other books, I’m a bit all or nothing in that regard). Isabel’s general disinterest in, bewilderment about, and discomfort towards romance novels might echo some of how my teenage self felt about them – and in The Hummingbird Killer, it proves to be a way for her to begin to articulate what a canny reader might recognise as her asexuality and aromanticism, although she doesn’t have access to these terms to describe her (lack of) feelings.

But mostly, this conversation was a chance for me to have fun coming up with premises for terrible in-universe romance novels. An assassin who falls in love with her target. Two assassins from rival guilds in a star-crossed romance, which starts with a meet-cute over a dead body. Tasteless premises in a world where the guilds pose a very real threat, but the amount of military and police romance that exists in the real world tells me it would be far from unlikely that such a thing would exist. (Not to mention some of the more egregious IRL historical premises, such as the entire concept of Nazi romance.)

Moreover, I was poking fun at a certain type of story – the sort of assassin story I had very deliberately set out not to write. The assassin who falls in love with her target, or is humanised by sexual attraction, or otherwise abandons her murderous ways because of seeing a hot dude… yeah, the weird predominance of that kind of story is exactly why I decided Isabel was going to be ace/aro, so that there would be no chance of that happening here.

This scene was also a chance to think about how the publishing industry might work in Espera. We’ll see in The Hummingbird Killer that the majority of books circulating within Espera are not written and published within the city – it’s just not big enough to be wholly self-sustaining when it comes to literature – but all imported books are subject to guild censorship. Books like this, though, written by Esperan authors and published with guild permission inside the city walls, represent a very specific subset of literature that Esperans have access to.

It makes me wonder what other genres are popular. I can imagine that within the realm of “contemporary” fiction and real-world settings, Esperan authors would be popular by virtue of being more relatable to readers inside the city, who might struggle to relate to supposedly “everyday” stories that look nothing like their reality. But I can see sci-fi and fantasy being more typically imported, because a fantasy world is a fantasy world no matter where you come from, and there would be less of a need for a very specific Esperan flavour of it.

I also imagine that murder mysteries hit very different when you live in Espera, though we know from a line in The Hummingbird Killer that crime fiction and thrillers are surprisingly popular there. But I can see those being written by Esperan authors, too, because your straightforward police procedural might not translate well. I wonder what it’s like being a guild censor, and the extent to which books set in Espera have to be favourable in their portrayal of the guilds or risk being rejected. How many thinly-veiled allegories did authors with abolitionist sympathies manage to slip past the censors by transplanting them to a different setting – and how many did the censors catch? What would be the consequences for that?

These are the kind of worldbuilding questions I haven’t thought about in too much depth, not because they wouldn’t tell us anything about the city (on the contrary; I think they’d tell us quite a lot) but because I could tell it was a rabbithole from which I would not emerge except with great difficulty. Maybe one day I’ll play around with some of those concepts a bit more.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear what kind of stories you think Esperan authors would be writing, and what they would be reading. Would you pick up one of the romance novels Emma’s reading in this chapter – out of morbid curiosity, if nothing else?

29/10, Releviĝo – Part III (TBA Readalong)

Just before we start, the wonderful folks over at Jetpack Support and WordPress.com have been fiddling with the blog feed issue I’ve been having and it is now, finally, resolved! My blog should be working properly in WordPress Reader no matter what sort of login you have or what angle you come at it from. I don’t know if these issues were actually affecting people’s subscriptions, but I certainly seem to have a couple of hundred of extra subscribers showing up now that the feeds have been reunited, so there is a chance some of you are reading this post having not seen anything from me in, uh, several years. If that’s the case, hello, welcome! This is the worst place to start. We’re reading The Butterfly Assassin chronologically and discussing the backstory, worldbuilding etc — you can jump to 17/09, Eraro to start at the beginning, or stick around and wait for me to start talking about something else. Consider checking out the Research and Books pages to know what I’ve been up to for the last few years, and do leave a comment I know you’re here :)


I think this is the first time we’ve needed three posts in the readalong series to get through a single chapter of The Butterfly Assassin, but I guess that’s what happens when a chapter gets stretched over nine days. We’re lucky I didn’t give you nine posts, lol. (You did get a nice little interruption in the form of Emma’s birthday, though. Yay?)

Anyway, today is the twenty-ninth of October, and on this day, Isabel has a Meaningful Conversation with Daragh.

Unlike in earlier drafts, when Daragh’s connection to the guild was far less complicated and conflicted, in this scene he seems genuinely uncomfortable with the part he’s playing in training Isabel as part of her recovery – and he lets her see that, too, which I think is important. Isabel doesn’t trust many people, but she finds it a lot easier to rely on people who don’t lie to her, and who admit things like “I don’t feel totally morally okay with working for a global organisation of arms dealers even if I’m a doctor and not a weapons developer”. You know, those small gestures of mutual trust-building that are so important in all relationships.

Ronan hinted earlier that Daragh had some problems with the guild, during the argument they were having before Isabel collapsed, but this is the first time we actually get to ask him about it, and find out why he would join in the first place. We learn that he comes from an industrial borough, and had limited educational opportunities, and that at Ronan’s urging, he took Comma sponsorship to be able to study medicine, in exchange for ten years working for the guild.

I think I’ve covered most of the necessary worldbuilding here in earlier posts, talking about the different types of boroughs and the schooling available there. I also mentioned back on the eleventh of October that Daragh and Ronan weren’t initially connected in any way, and then for a while I had it that they’d grown up together as neighbours, and finally I gave them a family connection. So we don’t need to hash all of that out again.

But then there’s Christopher.

In this scene, Daragh tells us a story about Christopher, his partner, who was killed by Hummingbird three years into his contract with Comma. Daragh wasn’t there and couldn’t save him, and he was forced to confront the fact that the very people he was treating as a Comma doctor were the kids of people who would do that to innocent people. Not all of them – some were families of guild members, admin staff, as close to innocent as any cog in the guild machine can be – but some of them. And he couldn’t hide from that anymore. And he couldn’t leave the guild.

I know the “dead boyfriend” backstory can be fairly overdone, but for me, it was a fairly important piece of figuring out the heart of Daragh’s moral conflict. It was, as all the useful things tend to be, a late addition, developing during my “secondary character development” phase of revisions during Author Mentor Match. And it was not, originally, going to be Daragh’s backstory – it was almost Mortimer’s.

This… works, kind of. It must’ve been Hummingbird who did it, because I can’t see Mortimer cooperating with Comma if it was them. But it doesn’t really fit with the school-as-safety emotional trajectory that we were looking at, unless it’s building on an existing fear.

Actually, you know what? This works a lot better as Daragh’s backstory. It wasn’t his brother he lost – it was his boyfriend. Maybe he was at Comma uni, already aiming to be a doctor, and his boyfriend was a civilian. He’s there/nearby when [name] is targeted, but he dies too fast and Daragh can’t save him. That’s gonna make it SO MUCH WORSE when [redacted] in b2 and Daragh [redacted], OH NO. I hate that. And by ‘hate that’ I mean ‘I’m in physical pain just thinking about it so of course it’s going in the book because I refuse to be alone with my suffering’.

Okay, we’ll come back to that when we look at Daragh, but I’m HERE FOR IT. This section was meant to be about Mortimer…

Spoilers for book 2 are redacted, but I love that you can see them a brief hint of my plotting method here – my plotting method being coming up with the worst thing I can think of and then doing it, without hesitation.

I actually have almost 2,500 words of notes about Daragh’s backstory and upbringing, though, so the fact that it only constitutes about two pages of the finished book is pretty impressive, in my opinion. Apparently, Daragh and Ronan both have siblings, and are both the eldest of all their siblings; there’s a substantial age gap between them and the next sibling down, which is how they ended up closer to each other. (I had entirely forgotten about Daragh’s siblings until now. I am not sure they are canon, otherwise they probably would’ve been mentioned in book 3 when Isabel is talking about his family.)

My notes also contain more about Christopher, none of which is massively new information compared to what made it into the book – in fact, some of it is the book verbatim, which is hilarious because usually my notes are incomprehensible – but I like seeing the original wording of it:

About a year into his employment with Comma, he starts dating a civilian called Christopher. Christopher is a painter – a street artist, a house painter, a freelance art teacher, whatever he can find that will let him make things colourful. He’s full of light and love and colour, and Daragh is drawn to him from the day they meet. At first, he’s afraid to tell Christopher that he’s employed by Comma, but he’s surprisingly understanding once they finally have that conversation: he’s still a doctor, isn’t he? Nobody would judge him for getting his fees paid the way he needed to, and it’s not like the guild is 100% evil, right? Most of the people he treats have never killed someone, after all.

Dating Christopher shows Daragh a side of Espera he never really got the chance to see as a student. He comes with him when he goes out tagging and painting buildings, sees the way his murals spread across the walls of buildings and the underside of bridges. He tells himself he’s only there so that if Christopher gets in trouble, he can use his guild connections to get them out of it, but in truth it’s more than that. There’s something healing in that art. It feels like the moment a patient’s scans come back clear, the day he tells someone they can leave the hospital, the first second of holding a healthy baby in his arms after a tough delivery.

Christopher is a doctor, he concludes. A doctor for people who never leave the city. He brings colours and the world to Espera’s enclosed streets. Sometimes he even paints the city walls themselves, little sparks of sunshine dancing around watchtowers and bolted gates.

“Finn…” you’re saying, reading this, “is Christopher meant to sound so much like Emma?” Yes, of course, he’s basically a narrative double, I love a narrative double. (And I love to directly compare romantic and platonic relationships like this because the friendships are just as important. This will recur, as an idea.)

What I really love about these notes, though, is the details they give us about how Daragh ended up working for the Sunshine Project. He touches on this in the finished book, but it’s a passing reference, not the whole story. In my notes, though:

He takes a month of compassionate leave and wanders the city, looking for Christopher’s paintings. Some of them he’s seen before. Some of them he knows are Chris’s because of the style, but they were painted while he was working, or before they met, and they’re faded and weather-beaten but still unmistakeably colourful. He follows them down narrow alleyways he’s never taken until, finally, he reaches a small, brightly-painted building that declares itself to be the home of Espera’s Sunshine Project, a non-profit clinic for low-income civilians.

When he goes inside he asks them about the decoration. Yes, they say, it was painted by Christopher. He did it for free, and came back every few months to give it another coat, make sure it stayed bright. No, they hadn’t heard the news, but they’re sorry to hear that. He’d always been a friend of the clinic. They treated his sister a few years ago; that was how he’d got involved.

Daragh doesn’t cry. But he asks them if they need any more doctors, if it would help, if there was anything he could do.

When he goes back to work, he asks Ronan if he can reduce his hours to four days a week, and spend the fifth working at the clinic. Ronan doesn’t get it, is suspicious at first – but he knows Daragh is grieving. Truth be told, he thought when his cousin called him that it would be to ask if Ronan could get him out of his contract early. It’s not in his power to just grant the request, but he knows the person who has that responsibility, and he can pull strings, if he wants to.

Please, says Daragh. Christopher used to help them, and he’s dead now. Daragh can’t repaint their building for them, but he can help like this. Ronan liked Christopher well enough, though they only met a handful of times. More importantly, he knows how much Daragh loved him. He pulls the strings.

It helps. It helps to know he’s helping. It helps to walk down those narrow, forgotten alleyways and to find himself surrounded by Christopher’s artwork. It helps even when it sucks hugely because he’s treating people who can’t afford what they need to get better, and he does more than he’s meant to and gives more than he can afford because it does something to fill the hollow pit inside him.

He starts working there on Saturdays as well. Ronan warns him against it, says he’s overworking himself, but it’s easier than sitting at home where Christopher isn’t and trying to forget the fact that yesterday he stitched the wound of somebody who will use their health to hurt somebody else. So, finally, Ronan stops trying to talk him out of it.

Daragh suspects, maybe, that one or two of the anonymous donations that come in to support the clinic’s work are from his cousin. But it’s not something Ronan would ever want to have associated with his name, so he doesn’t ask.

Again, I had forgotten about some of these notes. I had forgotten, in particular, what I wrote about Ronan here. It’s a version of Ronan we never see on the page, but maybe it brings us closer to the Ronan that Daragh knew, the one Isabel never sees.

And then, after she’s heard his story, Isabel asks Daragh how much longer he’s got of his ten-year contract – and he tells her five days. Given that we’ve already seen how Daragh is the only Comma doctor who seems to respect Isabel’s autonomy as a patient, you can understand why she might be freaked out about that, but Daragh tells her he’s staying. For her. Because he’s been kidding himself for a decade that he can make the guild better by being a part of it, so it’s about time he acted on that.

At the very end of all my character development notes from 2019, I have a single sentence: “[Character] wants…”. Daragh’s: Daragh wants to help people. To some extent, this translates into wanting to atone for the evil he’s been complicit in as a member of the guild. This translates into wanting to fix/make up for what the guild has done to Isabel, even at the cost of his own opportunity to leave Comma.

And while I may not have referred back to these notes very often in the past four years (to the point of having forgotten large amounts of what was written in them), I think that aspect of his character has continued to guide how I write him.

Safe. She never thought she’d find it here, in the hands of a Comma doctor.

God. I bloody love Daragh. I really do.

Anyway, tell me how this scene made you feel. Tell me how these excerpts from my notes make you feel! In Daragh’s place, would you have stayed? Would you have taken the 10-year deal in the first place? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll see you tomorrow for a phonecall with Emma and a glimpse of some of Espera’s finest genre romance novels…

23/10, Releviĝo – Part II (TBA Readalong)

Dates are getting seriously flexible at this point in the TBA readalong, as mentioned in the previous post. We’re covering several days all blurred together in today’s post, and the main reason it’s going up today and not on any of the other days included in it is that today is when I was able to get it up on time. The logic. It is impeccable. (You can tell I’m struggling a little to juggle PhD work, book 3 line edits, and this readalong, can’t you?)

Today’s post covers most of the period between the twenty-first and the twenty-eighth of October, in the space of roughly a page and a half somewhere in the middle of chapter 25.

Recovery is a slow bitch of a process, almost as agonising as falling apart.

This book has a lot of swearing in it, because Isabel has absolutely no compunctions about deploying the word fuck when it seems appropriate (and that is quite often, given how badly her life is going most of the time). It’s weird, then, that I sometimes find myself hesitating over a phrase. I know, for example, that some people are more uncomfortable with the word bitch than they are with much ‘stronger’ curses, because they see it as being gendered. This is why I almost exclusively use it for inanimate objects and abstract concepts – recovery, for example. It has a bite to it that I think suits Isabel’s mood, and the combination of pain and tedium that comes with recovery and prolonged pain.

Isabel is in quite a lot of pain at this point of the book, given that her heart stopped twice and effective CPR tends to involve breaking ribs – Daragh is deeply apologetic about that, which I find oddly charming – so she’s drifting, and that’s the main reason we’re skimming through a whole week within a few paragraphs.

As with all of these immediate post-antidote scenes, they belong largely to the sixth draft onwards, because before that, we still had wildly different things to be recovering from – one draft, for example, involved a lung transplant that got cut for implausibility (there was no way Isabel would have recovered that fully, that quickly). The sixth draft, though, was way less snappy than this one:

And so Isabel begins to get better.

It’s a slow, gradual process. She still wakes up every morning in pain, and sometimes the memories hit so suddenly that she lies paralysed until the gentle tickle of the oxygen tube in her nose soothes her into breathing by herself again. It takes several days more before she can stand – or at least, she assumes it’s several days, but time’s stopped meaning anything inside that room. She walks to the window, supported by an IV stand and Daragh’s arm, and it feels like running a marathon.

“And so Isabel begins to get better”??? BORING. Recovery is a slow bitch of a process is, I think you will agree, a much more evocative way of handling that line. The second paragraph may be almost identical to the one in the finished book, but without the voice and punch of the first line, it feels like I got bored halfway through writing the scene.

Even in the earlier drafts when there were more medical procedures later on, there was an antidote involved, and some recovery after that, so I dug out the fifth draft’s equivalent of this scene:

It takes more than a day for Comma’s best poisoners to mix an antidote from Isabel’s formula. She spends the next two days feeling like her body is being ripped apart from the inside, but when Daragh comes back with her blood test results, he’s smiling.

“You’re clean,” he says. “No more poison.”

“So why do I still feel like I’m dying?”

His smile fades. “It’s still a long road back to recovery,” he says. “You’ll need further surgeries, and at least one transplant. You can expect plenty more time in bed, and we’ll work on your recuperation slowly.”

“But the poison’s gone?”

“The poison’s gone,” he confirms. “It’ll take time, but you’re going to be okay.”

Okay. She doesn’t remember what that’s like. Her brain gives her pictures of okay: schoolbooks and tram rides, cooked breakfasts and worrying about rent, the sight of her parents’ front door closing behind her. They don’t equate to feelings. She feels numb and empty, as though the antidote flushed out her emotions as well as the poison.

She dozes, as weak from the ravages of the antidote as from the poison itself, until she hears Emma’s voice, and opens her eyes to see the other girl pushing her way into the room and asking questions of Daragh, a dozen a minute. Isabel can’t make out the words, but her stiff muscles pull her face into a tiny smile.

Okay.

It’s not an exact match: the first half of this scene overlaps more closely with our previous post, in which Isabel first woke up after the antidote and asked Daragh what was going on. Here, that’s a far less exciting process, because my fifth draft self hadn’t quite figured out how to get super dramatic with the near-death experiences yet, and we go straight from there into thinking about recovery. We’re missing the actual recovery, though, the slow drag up from the brink of death – we go straight from here to the post I’ll be writing for the 29th.

Part of the increased emphasis on things like that – pain and illness and how slow and tedious the whole process can be – is due to my own increased personal experience of being unwell; part of it is a greater commitment to realistic timelines. Some readers don’t like it. They’re furious that my main character is ‘weak’ for so much of the book, that she just spends the whole time in pain, that she’s not ‘badass’ enough. I hope they’ve found other books they like better, because I wasn’t writing this one for them. For me, these moments are important.

The second half of that scene above is one that I thought had survived, in some form, but can’t find in the finished book. I suppose that makes sense. It worked only in the drafts when Emma was allowed into the hospital so that Isabel could see her and consider her a Symbol Of Okayness in person. We still get that idea – it occurs earlier, for example, when Grace calls her at the lab because she makes Isabel feel better – but maybe not as explicitly as this.

I’m a little sad that this has gone, even though I can’t see where I would have put it in this version of the book. But I suppose I don’t need to spell it out when it’s there in every conversation Isabel and Emma have. Emma is hope and normality and everything that escaping the guild symbolises for Isabel. Okay.

As the week goes on, Isabel’s recovery begins to look more like training, the guild slowly but surely pulling her back in. This is something that has been present in the drafts for a long time. In the fifth draft, when Emma was allowed into the hospital, she even witnessed some of this:

And the questions they ask, some while Emma’s still sitting in the corner of the room doing her homework, she knows what they mean too: why they ask which arteries cause the swiftest death if cut, which poisons are hardest to detect, which pressure points can fell a grown man in seconds. How to break bones with minimal force. How to use lack of strength as a weapon.

They’re training her.

It feels less like recuperation and more like being back in Cocoon, except with a heart monitor and oxygen tank by her side. Emma starts paying attention to Isabel’s answers, and by the end of the session her eyes are wide and horrified. Maybe this is the first time the truth of Isabel’s capabilities has sunk in.

She knows a thousand ways to kill people. She can’t trust her own memories, but she knows this.

We can see a lot of the echoes of this scene in the finished version, but this time Emma isn’t there to soften the scene, or to make Isabel feel less alone with it. Nor is she there to challenge Isabel on it:

“You don’t have to do this, Bel. You wanted to leave. Don’t give up now.”

What can she say – that leaving was less about Comma and more about her parents, and now that she knows the guild wasn’t responsible for what happened, she’s got no reason to hate them? That it’s pretty obvious from what she did to that burglar that she has no objection to killing, and what’s more, that she’s good at it?

She can’t even remember if Emma knows about Ian, but she knows her friend won’t want to hear that. She’s still pretending Isabel’s capable of being normal if given the chance, like she’s not broken on some fundamental level.

Daragh says, “These tests are part of your recovery. The long-term effects…”

“Don’t bullshit me,” says Isabel, cutting him off. “I know you’re training me. I just don’t care.”

“You should care,” says Emma, standing. “You should want more from life than murder.” And she leaves the room.

A lot of this tension now comes a little later, and over the phone, rather than in person. But Daragh is far more conflicted than his fifth draft counterpart, and far less likely to bullshit Isabel about anything – something we’ll be talking about on the twenty-ninth, when we finish up this chapter.

I don’t quite know how I managed to get a post this long out of literally a page, but that’s fine, makes up for how short yesterday’s post was. Please, as always, leave all your questions, thoughts and reactions in the comments!

22/10, Emma Westray’s Birthday (TBA Readalong Bonus)

Today, as we will learn in the readalong post for the 30th October, is Emma Westray’s birthday. Isabel misses it, so we only hear about it belatedly, but I thought you might like to be reminded of it on time, so that we can collectively celebrate it.

The Butterfly Assassin takes place in 2029, and Emma Westray is turning eighteen. This means she was born in 2011 (horrifying), which means if she were real, today would be her twelfth birthday.

Happy birthday, Emma. You are, as far as I am aware, the only character in this trilogy who actually has a canon birth date, since Isabel’s birthday got cut from The Hummingbird Killer and now neither she nor I can remember what it was (it’s in April, that’s all I know). Congratulations. Please use this privilege well.

(Writers: do you give your characters birthdays? All the way down to the date, or just a vague sense of what month they were born?)

20/10, Releviĝo (TBA Readalong)

LADS. I am so sorry. I am posting this with maybe ten minutes to spare before midnight. I was so convinced the next readalong post wasn’t due until the 22nd October, and I’d run out of pre-scheduled posts, but I was convinced it was fine and I could catch up on them at the weekend. IT WAS NOT FINE. I nearly missed today entirely.

And that would have been tragic! Because on the twentieth of October, Isabel wakes up after believing she was dying, and asks Daragh what the date is. And that means today is one of the only dates that is actually on the page, in the book, and therefore of all the ones to miss, this would have been the worst.

‘What day is it?’
‘Saturday. It’s the twentieth of October.’

There’s no particular symbolism to this date. I chose it because it matched up with the calendar and an appropriate number of days had passed, that’s all. I wish I could tell you there was more to it than that, but if there was actual symbolism, I probably would have remembered that it was due to happen today, and would’ve written this post on time. OOPS.

For obvious reasons, given everything I’ve told you over the course of the last few posts with regard to the development of this section of the book, this scene showed up in the sixth draft. It has always been Saturday 20th October. In fact, that might have been one of the dates that helped me pin down the year (2029), because I needed the days of the week to match up — not that I was particularly attached to this being a Saturday, for the record, but just because I needed to pin it down somehow and that was one way of doing it.

That first iteration of the scene has a few small wording differences compared to the current one, but otherwise it’s almost identical, and the same goes for the whole of this scene. That’s the beauty of the late additions: they tend to show up in roughly the same shape they’ll always be in, and don’t have to be wrangled quite so dramatically into place.

The only real difference — and truly, it’s not particularly substantial — is that in the final book, Isabel wonders whether Ashvin has found somebody to take over her paper round, because she doubts she’ll be getting her job back. Again, it should be obvious by now that that wasn’t in the earlier drafts, because the paper round itself was a late addition, but while it might be a throwaway detail, I think it does add something to the scene: Isabel’s civilian life is a real, concrete loss, and this is the moment she realises she isn’t getting it back. Her paper round is a symbol of that. It was a job that bound her to the world outside the guild, gave her a way to exist within it. Now it’s gone, and she didn’t even get to say goodbye, and she’ll probably never see Ashvin again.

This scene is very much grappling with irreversible decisions, and harm that can’t be undone. They made the antidote. The poison is gone. So why doesn’t that change anything beyond the likelihood of Isabel dying in the next five minutes? I mean, sure, that part’s important too, but… there’s a very real grief here for even the illusion of safety, and Isabel is also blaming herself quite significantly for what she’s been through.

It was always herself she needed saving from.

Whether she’s right to hold herself responsible for making the poison, I’ll leave up to readers. It’s one of those questions the whole series is grappling with: can you be blameless while still being culpable? Are there moral justifications for working in weapons development? The line between victim and perpetrator is never a clear one here: Isabel is harmed, and does harm. Both of those things are true.

But here. Here in this moment the person she has done harm to is herself, her own creation a weapon in her father’s hand. She’s going to need time to process that, and processing requires safety, and she’s got precious little of that at the moment, here in the heart of the guild. So she’ll probably get right on with repressing it very soon. But that’s a topic for the next few days.

Speaking of which: my calendar marks the events of chapter 25 (“recovery, contd.”) running from 21st October through to the 29th, when we next have a specifically-dated conversation, and then on to chapter 26 on the 30th. I will probably write a single post to cover that first 8 days, and post it some time between the 21st and the 23rd, depending on when I finish it. Sound good? Cool. I’ll see you here tomorrow/Sunday/Monday, then.

SORRY AGAIN FOR FORGETTING TODAY

I’d say it won’t happen again but let’s be honest. It will. There’s a reason I was scheduling these posts at the beginning. 🙈

17/10, Savo–Rezigno (TBA Readalong)

And we’re back. I’m hoping regular readers of this TBA readalong didn’t enjoy that break too much, since it would suggest you’re not having a great time being bombarded with posts, but if it was a relief, I can’t say I blame you; I’ve thrown kind of a lot of words at you 😅 For those just joining us, we’re following the story of The Butterfly Assassin in real time according to the book’s chronology, and I’m talking about the writing process and worldbuilding. We’re getting into the big dramatic plot moments now, so I recommend jumping back to 17/09, Eraro, to start at the beginning!


It’s now the seventeenth of October. The last time we saw Isabel, she was in hospital, drifting in and out of consciousness – still dying, her decline only slowed by the interventions of Daragh and other Comma medics, not halted. For the last few days, she’s been moving further and further past the point where recovery seems possible, but she’s not all the way gone yet.

And on the seventeenth of October, Isabel remembers. A nightmare, a dream, a memory: it’s the missing piece she’s been lacking, the memory that tells her that the reason she can’t break the code on that one page of notes, the one that might be crucial to saving her, is because it was never her father’s code in the first place – it was hers. She’s the one who designed the poison this way, and she’s the one who wrote it down.

With the last of her strength, Isabel gives Daragh the formula of the antidote, and then her heart stops.

She never thought dying would hurt like this. She would have fought harder, if she knew it would hurt like this.

This is… a dramatic moment. We have the only moment in the book with non-standard formatting, as Isabel’s heartbeat slows and stops on page, and then we have the shortest chapter in the whole book (97 words, if I remember correctly). And by making Isabel the creator of the poison, I made her the agent of her own destruction – but also gave her agency over her own salvation. It’s her knowledge that’s the key to the antidote, not the invisible work of off-screen others.

This was a significant change from early drafts, where Isabel had almost no role in creating her own antidote, but she also had less responsibility in those drafts for the poison itself. Like I said in an earlier post, it was important to me that Isabel is at least partially responsible for her own suffering, and that this doesn’t mean she deserves the pain. But it was also a crucial part in making sure she had narrative agency, and wasn’t only suffering at the hands of others.

I love my tiny <100-word chapter here. I haven’t done it anywhere else in the trilogy; I didn’t want to make a habit of it. It works because it’s the only one, because this moment needs to be dramatic, because Isabel’s organs are failing and her heart has stopped and from her point of view, there’s a strong chance the story ends here.

The reader knows – or thinks they know – that it can’t end here, because there’s still a solid chunk of book left. Isabel’s a third-person narrator, but we’re still very closely in her head and we never see others’ perspectives on the story, so it functions like a first-person narrative. And we do not expect first-person narratives to kill off their sole narrators.

Now, this is where I can hear my beta readers sniggering in the background, because they know full well that I have killed off my sole first-person narrators in the past (and also my first-person narrators in multi-POV books). I have written more first-person death scenes than anyone should write, probably; it’s a problem, I’m incorrigible when it comes to killing them off, I accept this. I had one book where I killed the first-person narrator twice. (She died. Came back wrong. Died again. It was a whole thing.)

What I’m saying is, if you ever pick up one of my books and it has a first-person narrator, do not assume that this means they are safe. They are not. Nobody is safe. I can and will write a first-person death scene. (And ain’t that always a weird experience as a writer. The emotional hangover is real.)

But. Fine. Let’s assume this is not permadeath for Isabel, because we have 150 pages left of the book and also two sequels. We still need to feel it, though. The life-or-death stakes don’t mean anything if death was never really on the table, and the last-minute recovery can’t be a painless, easy experience or it starts to feel like we’re cheating. There has to be a cost to letting a character get that close to death, and this is it. The white heat of agony.

Sorry, Isabel. I feel like she’s really going through it in this part.

These scenes, as you can probably deduce from everything I’ve told you about the journey this book’s edits took, originate from the sixth draft, the AMM rewrite. There, they take more or less the exact form they have in the published book, barring a few stylistic tweaks here and there, so there’s nothing I can show you from those earlier versions that you haven’t already seen in the finished book.

But there’s also a confession I need to make, because while I can’t be one hundred percent sure of this, I think I may… possibly… have stolen a line here? Specifically, the line that opens chapter 24:

There is no relief in waking, only noise.

Bearing in mind that I wrote this line in 2019, and at the time I hadn’t reread the Hunger Games trilogy since around 2013 (I reread them in 2021; that post was written after I sold The Butterfly Assassin, but before that was announced), this was at most a half-remembered homage and possibly a complete accident, but this line has a predecessor. In Mockingjay.

Finnick and I sit for a long time in silence, watching the knots bloom and vanish, before I can ask, ‘How do you bear it?’

Finnick looks at me in disbelief. ‘I don’t, Katniss! Obviously, I don’t. I drag myself out of nightmares each morning and find there’s no relief in waking.’

Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins

Okay, it’s five words, and an entirely relatable sentiment for anyone who has ever woken up from something awful to find nothing has improved, so I doubt anyone would be stringing me up for plagiarism even if they could demonstrate that I did this deliberately (and, I will be honest, I don’t know if I did or not). But these days, having noticed the overlap, I prefer to think of it as intertextuality: a commentary on YA books about trauma and violence, about getting trapped in a cycle and becoming somebody you never wanted to be, because you haven’t been given any way out.

When my publisher first started using The Hunger Games as a comp title, I wasn’t sure about it. It was such a global phenomenon that it felt presumptuous, long enough ago that it felt like a throwback (and therefore less relevant to the current market), and my impression of those books had been shaped by the films to the point where the main thing this evoked was “competition” and “love triangle”, neither of which are focus points for my work. (Especially not the latter!)

But when I actually reread the trilogy, I saw a lot of shared themes: the trauma; the societal cycles of violence that disproportionately impact on young people, especially disadvantaged young people; the way that survival instincts and protective instincts can override all else; the impossibility of breaking a cycle while justice and punishment are conflated, etc. And I became extremely okay with that comparison, because it suggested to me that books about trauma, books where teenage girls are messy and violent and awful and hurting, can be hugely popular and influential, even when people keep telling us that nobody wants to read about despair.

Anyway. I’ve confessed my possible theft. Isabel is dying. Daragh has the formula for the antidote, but will it be enough to save her? It’ll be a few days before we find out – on the twentieth of October – so for now, it’s over to you.

How did you feel in this moment, when Isabel’s heart stopped? Do you like weird formatting in books, or does it put you off? If you read the book as an ebook, did you even get to experience the full drama, or did it ruin it by squishing everything into left-alignment? (Because that would be tragic.)

Leave your answers, and any other thoughts, in the comment section below.