Category: TBA Readalong

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…

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.”


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?