Tag: books

Cover Reveal: Moth to a Flame

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

So, without further ado, here it is:

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

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

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

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

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

As for the book itself…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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?

TBA Readalong Starting This Sunday!

Hi friends,

This is just a heads-up to let you know that I’ll be starting the readalong of The Butterfly Assassin on Sunday 17th September. This was an idea I proposed in my last post, following the timeline of the book to discuss each chapter/scene in real time. It will be running at a fairly breakneck place for the first three weeks, as the first half of the book all goes down in pretty close succession, but we’ll have a little more breathing room after that.

For those who plan to join us, I highly recommend reading The Butterfly Assassin before we start, as I might sometimes reference later events within a chapter’s discussion, but I’ll try to primarily keep my posts focused on the scenes in question for those who haven’t got that far yet. But all of the posts will naturally involve some spoilers, to varying extents.

One thing I realised while drafting the first couple of posts is that I don’t want to over-explain what’s already on the page, and in doing so, foreclose the possibility of alternative interpretations. I want the book to stand on its own two feet, and I don’t want my intentions to overshadow your readings. I might sometimes highlight symbolism or my intentions where they seem particularly relevant/important, but on the whole, this project isn’t about analysing the words on the page.

Instead, I want to focus on discussing the writing process – previous drafts of scenes and how they changed over time, for example, or research rabbitholes – and worldbuilding details that didn’t make it onto the page. I have a lot of these, as you’ll discover very quickly once we start. (And this is a great chance to refresh my memory of some of the details before I embark on line edits for book 3!)

Whether you count these worldbuilding details as canonical is entirely up to you: while many of them underpin the info on the page and explain why I made certain decisions, if they were important enough to be on the page, then they would already be in the book itself. So, since they’re not, they’re just fun bonus information. Extracanonical, if you like.

Likewise, I’ve got some exclusive scenes from my notes to share with you which, while they shape my view of the characters involved and how I write them, aren’t technically canon, because they exist only in one random worldbuilding document from 2019 and nowhere else. The books stand alone; the rest is decoration.

So, basically, I’m giving you a load of completely superfluous information that will make you realise exactly how chaotic my writing process is and why it took me so long to reach the publication stage with this book after writing it in 2014 😅

And having said all that about not wanting to close off issues of interpretation, you’re still very welcome to talk about your interpretations in the comments. I love seeing how different people read certain moments! I won’t necessarily confirm/deny whether they’re what I was thinking or planning, but I want to hear them anyway.

So that’s the plan! The first few posts are fairly long, with lots of past drafts coming out to play; the rest, I hope, will be shorter…

And don’t forget to subscribe to the blog via email, WordPress notification, RSS feed, etc, to make sure you don’t miss any of the posts :) I’ll see you back here on Sunday!

All About The Hummingbird Killer

If you follow me on other social media — and I assume, at this point and given the nature of the internet these days, that most of you do — you’ll have seen that a couple of weeks ago I shared the cover and the blurb for the sequel to The Butterfly Assassin. But, just in case you didn’t, I thought I’d talk a little about it here.

(And, yes, I did mean to write this post two weeks ago, but unfortunately my health is incredibly garbage right now and I have not been very functional lately, so it’s taken me a while to get to it.)

So, book two! It’s called The Hummingbird Killer, and it comes out on May 11th, 2023 in the UK. I don’t have release dates for anywhere else; Amazon is suggesting possibly August for Australia and New Zealand, and I would imagine the French edition will come sometime in the autumn, like book one, but I have no further info on that front yet.

Here’s the cover:

The English cover of The Hummingbird Killer, which is black with a red and orange spray-painted hummingbird.

And the blurb:

Teen assassin Isabel Ryans now works for Comma, and she’s good at it: the Moth is the guild’s most notorious killer, infamous throughout the city of Espera. But Isabel still craves normality, and she won’t find it inside the guild. She moves in with a civilian flatmate, Laura, and begins living a double life, one where she gets to pretend she’s free.

But when Isabel’s day job tangles her up with an anti-guild abolitionist movement, it becomes harder to keep her two lives separate. Forced to choose between her loyalty to her friends and her loyalty to Comma, she finds herself with enemies on all sides, putting herself and Laura at risk.

Can Isabel ever truly be safe in a city ruled by killers?

Now that I’ve covered the basics, let’s get on to answering some FAQs, some of which I have actually been asked, and others which I’m anticipating somebody somewhere wanting to know the answer to.

Is it a direct sequel to The Butterfly Assassin? Do I need to have read book one first?

Yes, and probably. Around two years have passed since the first book, so Isabel’s life has moved on somewhat and we’re not directly picking up the threads of any cliffhangers. I’ve also made an effort to remind readers who certain recurring characters are, and there are quite a few characters that are brand new. But events in book one still echo through this one and are referenced frequently, and we’re building on the worldbuilding foundation laid there too. That means if you’re a forgetful reader like me, it should still be okay to read without having recently refreshed your memory with a reread of book one, but if you haven’t read book one at all, you’ll probably find that you’re missing quite a lot of vital context!

Okay, but I am super forgetful and don’t remember who anyone is. Will you do a recap?

I mean, if that would be useful to people, I’m happy to do a deeply irreverent blog post catching you all up on who the characters are and what happened to them in book one. Let me know in the comments if that’s something you’d be interested in.

Is this the end of the story?

No, this is the second book in a trilogy. It’s always been a trilogy in my head, and the ending of this book has been planned from the start. I’m very glad that we sold book three and I didn’t have to change it. That doesn’t mean this book doesn’t have its own arcs and goals and structure etc, but it does mean we’re working towards a larger resolution rather than wrapping everything up here.

Wait… does that mean there’s a cliffhanger?

That would be telling. (But yeah, kind of. Sorry.)

What ‘representation’ does this book have?

I feel faintly uncomfortable with breaking books down into the identities of their main characters, especially when those identities might not be clearly defined within canon or don’t map neatly onto the real world. But I will say that Isabel is much more firmly portrayed as asexual and aromantic in this book, and has more than one conversation about it with other characters; her flatmate is bisexual and aromantic, and her colleague is a Black trans man who also happens to be asexual and aromantic. There are also several other queer characters in the background, including two who use they/them pronouns. Race is a little complicated in the setting, but several characters are definitely not white.

Isabel is also still grappling with the psychological and physical impact of book one, and we see the ways she works around her chronic health issues on a daily basis, as well as her complete failure to do anything that might help her mental health. Gluten free and traumatised, that’s our girl.

Is there romance in this book?

Nope. It’s all about those platonic friendships, weird surrogate parent figures, terrible bosses, and revolutionary colleagues you accidentally end up helping achieve their illegal goals. That seems like more than enough drama, angst, and emotions to me without adding romance into the mix.

Will Isabel have a redemption arc in this book?

Good question! There’s an arc. Off a cliff. Away from redemption.

Real talk, Isabel gets worse in this book. But isn’t that the point of the middle book of a trilogy? This is where I break everything. Book three is where I’ll fix it. And I will fix it — I don’t want this to be a hopeless series — but prepare yourself for a big mess first.

How many people die in this book?

You know, I tried to keep count during the writing process, but things got a little hazy towards the end. I’m thinking minimum of fifty. Of whom Isabel killed probably a minimum of forty-seven. You know that part where I said she got worse? Yeah, so, about that…

Will [character name] come back?

Were they alive at the end of book one? They’re probably in this one. That’s really the only criterion I have, although of course that still excludes a fair number of characters.

Do we get to see more of Espera in this one?

Yes! That’s actually one thing I’m really excited about. Book one follows Isabel very closely, and her immediate priorities are things like “not dying”, so we don’t get to see too much of the city around her. Considering how long I spent developing highly specific details about the city that never made it to the page, I knew I wanted the chance to share more of it with you all! In this book, the camera really pans out to look more at Isabel’s role within the whole city, and we see different aspects of Espera, including its more revolutionary elements. So those reviewers who said they wanted to know more about the city/world, you’re in luck.

Do you have an aesthetic for this book?

I don’t make visual aesthetics (but think colourful street art and a lot of blood, like book 1) but I do have a playlist for it, and frankly, it’s full of bangers. Ignore the title of the playlist. That was the working title of the book and I haven’t been able to bring myself to change it yet; I will do so eventually.

Can I get an ARC?

There aren’t going to be any physical ARCs for this book (sad times) but it should be available on NetGalley at some point. That’s all I can tell you on that front, I’m afraid.

Are you doing a pre-order campaign?

YES, thank you so much for asking, hypothetical questioner. I am doing a pre-order campaign. If you pre-order the book and submit your receipts to this form, you will receive a digital short story set in the world of The Butterfly Assassin, a few years before the start of book one. (It’s about Emma, and to a lesser extent, Grace.) You can also enter into a draw to win an annotated copy of book one, where I will have gone through pointing out all the symbolism and foreshadowing. Frankly, that’s because I’ve wanted to do an annotated book for aaaaages and this is just an excuse, but indulge me, please. (That part is optional, though, so if you’ve already got more copies of The Butterfly Assassin than you could ever need, you can just go for the story!)

And yes, it’s open internationally. All the pre-order links that I’ve rounded up so far are on this page.

Why should I pre-order?

Other than that you want this exclusive short story which will not be posted anywhere else? Because pre-orders really help authors! Even if we’re not the kind of bestsellers who are shooting for thousands of first-week sales and an appearance in every bestseller chart known to man (and I can assure you I’m not), they help signal to booksellers that there’s interest in a title, so that they’ll stock it, which increases the chances that other people will buy it. Or they’ll give it that much-needed boost up the online charts, which again, gives it more visibility and helps others to discover it. Plus, it reassures your local author that people like them, and we authors are deeply insecure and need to be reassured in as many ways as possible at all times.

Pre-orders might not save lives but they definitely bring a spark of joy into the world, and why wouldn’t you want to bring a spark of joy into the world? Do it. It’s a present to your future self. Your future self will thank you (and so will I).

I think that’s everything, but if you have any further questions about the book, please drop ’em in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them. It’s now less than 2.5 months until it comes out, so it’s time to start getting excited! :)

And remember, you can always find all the information (including content warnings and buy links) about my books on the ‘Books’ page here.

Edit: I just noticed that The Butterfly Assassin is on sale for 99p on Kindle UK (affiliate link), so this is a great time to buy it if you haven’t already jumped on this particular bandwagon!

Can Authors Use Tumblr To Promote Their Books?

Famously described as 'soft, sad freaks on an unprofitable website', Tumblr users are highly resistant to being advertised to. But as someone who has been on Tumblr since 2012, met some of their best friends there, and feels less alienated by it than by every other social media platform, I wanted to know if I could use Tumblr Blaze to effectively advertise my book.

Read more

Two Months After

After sharing some reflections on the publishing journey one week before the publication of my debut novel, I intended to update you on how things were going one week after publication. The fact that it has taken me two months to have the time, headspace, and energy to do this probably says more about what it’s like to be a debut author than anything I might have written, but here we are. Two months after.

In fairness, this delay is not just due to publishing. June was an incredibly chaotic month for me, with a number of major Happenings, including one that resulted in having to move house in July — my fourth move since November. I can tell you one thing for sure: I’m getting really sick of moving house. There were also some positive events — my sister getting married being one of them — but it certainly felt like a month best described as ‘everything happens so much’.

I coped with all the stress in my usual way, which is to say, I accidentally wrote an entire novel that I was not supposed to be writing and which I had completely not intended to write. I call it the ‘unintentional vampire novel’, because I wasn’t even sure it was a novel when I started it, and a week later I had 88k that its earliest readers reassure me is not completely terrible. Now, however, I’m mired in edits for the sequel to The Butterfly Assassin, and so it seemed like a good time to procrastinate by telling you how things are going.

Let’s start with the highlights:

Publication day

I visited a number of bookshops in Central London with my lovely publicist Eve, and got to sign books and generally feel a bit special. Despite one bookshop losing the stack of books they assured us they had, this was a good way to make the day feel a bit special, and avoid the sense of anticlimax that I know some writers feel on the day itself.

Finn Longman wearing a grey tank top and a black sparkly sunhat, leaning on a very large stack of copies of The Butterfly Assassin, grinning at the camera.
Signed books at Easons on O’Connell St, Dublin

Dublin International Literature Festival

Literally the next day I flew out to Dublin, again with Eve, for my first literary festival. Although we had some struggles with the hotel booking on arrival, and then I had an absolutely nightmarish journey home via Dublin Airport and its newsworthy queues, we had a great day in Dublin on the Saturday visiting bookshops, signing a few books (or many books, in the case of Easons on O’Connell Street), and then heading over to the festival for my panel in the late afternoon. The audience was small, but that was probably a good thing for my first event, and at least I got to talk to some readers at more length afterwards than I would have been able to with a larger audience!

Book launch

I had my book launch a few days after publication, at Housman’s — a wonderful radical non-profit independent bookshop with strong pacifist connections and a really interesting selection of books. Despite being a very stabby book about murder, The Butterfly Assassin is considerably influenced by my own pacifism, and this felt like the perfect venue to get up on a chair and yell about how the arms trade is immoral and why we shouldn’t be recruiting sixteen-year-olds into the military. It was all fairly last-minute and I was terrified that nobody would come, but they did! I signed books! We had a cake with my book cover on it! It was hardly a huge glamorous party such as people tend to think of book launches as being, but it was just right for this book, and Housman’s was the perfect venue. They still have some signed copies, if you’re interested in ordering one.

Finn Longman sitting at a table holding up a copy of The Butterfly Assassin.
Signing books at my book launch in Housman’s, being photobombed by Eve, my publicist.

Visiting bookshops

Speaking of signed books, whenever I pass a bookshop that carries The Butterfly Assassin, I offer to sign it. So far nobody’s turned me down, though one did ask for ID (I suggested they checked the author photo in the back of the book). Occasionally, it’s turned into a quest in which we search for the copies the Waterstones website claims they have — I’ve found TBA in Adult, but also in 9-12, where it definitely doesn’t belong. So at this point, I think it’s my moral duty to check it’s correctly shelved wherever it might be ;) It’s always exciting to find my book in a shop, especially when it’s on a table or a face-out. I’ve also loved having people send me pictures of it in their local bookshops.

Reviews and nice messages

I’m trying to learn to stay off Goodreads — it’s not a healthy place for an author to be spending a lot of time, especially while trying to focus on a sequel, because you end up with too many voices in your head telling you to add more of this, have less of that, and all the while you’re hyper-analysing a review that’s 100% positive and yet only gave you four stars. (What does it take, book reviewers?! What does it take?!) But I have loved seeing some positive reviews, and reflections from people who totally got the book and everything I was trying to do with it. I’ve had some amazing messages from readers and friends, and I’ve been particularly touched by the messages from friends I’d fallen out of touch with, who’ve nevertheless picked up the book and told me how much they enjoyed it.

I was also featured in The Guardian as one of their best YA books of the month, and received a lovely review in the Irish Times, too, which is more than I could have expected from mainstream media!

My first real school visit

Some authors find school visits and assemblies terrifying. Personally, I love to have a captive audience to talk at — I get to talk, they can’t leave, it’s my dream communication scenario. I did my first ‘official’ school visit recently and, while it’s still a little anxiety-inducing to get up in front of a bunch of fifteen-year-olds and talk to them about your book, I think it went well. It was great to sign books afterwards, too, including a pile for the school’s LGBTQ soc. I appreciated how supportive their teachers seemed to be, giving me the chosen names of trans and nonbinary students to write in the books, although it was an all-girls’ school. A lot’s changed since I was at school (we didn’t even have an LGBTQ club of any sort), and it’s nice to see, when the world around us feels increasingly focused on weaponising a culture war against trans people.


My biggest event! I went to the Young Adult Literature Convention in 2016 as a reader, but this was my first time there as an author. It’s a pretty different experience: hanging out in the Green Room rather than queuing for signings (although I did a little of the latter); speaking on a panel instead of watching it from the audience (though I did that too). I loved having the chance to talk to readers in person, especially some that I’d encountered online before, and signed a fair few books. I also got the chance to tell Jonathan Stroud how much his books meant to me, which was, to be honest, as much of a highlight.

Finn Longman wearing a grey tank top, dark trousers and a black sunhat, as well as a white FFP3 mask, standing with their arms outstretched in front of oversized letters reading YALC. In the background is a wall made of huge book spines.
At the Young Adult Literature Convention 2022

So those are some of the highlights — I’m sure there are more that I’ve forgotten, or which have happened behind-the-scenes and therefore aren’t public knowledge yet — and it can often feel, on social media, like that’s all there is to it. Like every author in their debut month is having a whirlwind of events and reviews and sales, and they must be having a good time, so there’s everything to be jealous of and if you’re not having a great time, you must be doing something wrong.

Well, there’s more to it than that, and I’m not going to dwell on it, but I will say: there are days when the comparisonitis is hard. Where all I can think about is how other people’s books seem to be in more bookshops than mine. When all I can focus on is how few people are talking about my book on Twitter, or posting pictures of it on Instagram; how books that aren’t even out yet have more reviews and more adds on Goodreads; how I fall between the cracks of awards and lists because of being upper YA — too old for the teen-focused awards, too young for the adult ones.

Everyone feels this, I think. Authors with small publishers look enviously at authors with big publishers. Authors with small deals at big publishers look enviously at authors with big deals at any publishers. Comparison is the thief of joy — I’ve always known it, but I’ve felt it more in the last two months, and I’m trying to remember that I’ve achieved something I worked towards for thirteen years, and I owe it to my younger self to appreciate that for a moment instead of always wanting more.

But it’s hard! Especially when publishing is frequently opaque: authors know a lot less about what’s going on behind the scenes than people generally assume we do. Well-meaning friends ask me how the book is doing, and the truth is, I have absolutely no idea, because I won’t get sales figures for a while yet. All I can do is guess based on a mixture of social media, Goodreads, Amazon rankings, Gardners stock figures, and pulling numbers completely out of nowhere, the last of which is probably at least as accurate a figure as the first four combined. As somebody who likes to be in control and to have all the information about everything, this is a challenge, and not one I can do anything to change.

In the absence of hard figures and explicit statements like, ‘Yes, you are selling exactly as expected,’ or, ‘Your book is a failure and we regret ever publishing it,’ it’s easy to fixate on the information I do have, like how many people are posting about it, and that way madness lies. Trust me.

And then there are my book two edits.

Ugh. The dreaded book two.

Look, I had mostly avoided the book two angst, by virtue of having written the book back in 2014 when I wrote book one. This meant that completing a draft and sending it to my editor was wayyyyy easier than it seemed to be for a lot of my friends, because, well, it wasn’t a first draft, it was a fourth draft, and that’s easy enough, right?

Unfortunately, the editing process has proved… challenging, in part because this is still, fundamentally, a book that I wrote in 2014, despite some plot changes. The changes were superficial and the foundations were weak, a problem I’d had with book one and solved by rewriting the book from the ground up — before I got the book deal. It turns out, fixing those kinds of issues within a six-week structural edit deadline is a whole lot harder, and I have shed a number of tears and had a number of breakdowns as I attempt to work out how best to do that.

I should add: most of these problems were ones that I identified, rather than my editor ripping the book apart. I think a lot of people see editors as these fierce beings who can instantly spot every flaw and will eviscerate an author’s work, making them feel like failures. What actually happens is a lot gentler at her end than that: she’ll say, “I’m not really following X’s motivation for doing Y. Can we make this clearer?” And then I look at X’s motivation for doing Y, realise it makes absolutely no sense because Z, spend three days trying to save it, and eventually realise I need to rip out that entire plot thread and rework it. Unfortunately, that thread will then turn out to be fundamental to an entire section of the book, and thus I have now pulled out its guts and it’s going to need major surgery to fix it.

In other words, she believed I knew what I was doing; I’m the one who eviscerated my own work and made myself feel like a failure. Lmao. So that’s fun.

Two consecutive comments on a Word document reading "I HATE YOU SO MUCH YOU DON'T EVEN KNOW" and "I'm so done"
One of my earliest beta readers commenting on a book I wrote in 2014, or me about my past self’s decisions? Who can say.

And then, on top of that, there is the fact that it is much harder to write a sequel when people are telling you what you think of book one. Listen, it is impossible to write for every reader, especially when they wildly contradict each other — one review will compliment the worldbuilding and description, the next will say that there’s not nearly enough of either; one review will say they love every character and found the friendships emotive and engaging, the next will say they didn’t care about any of them because the relationships were too shallow. You can’t win!

But more than that: you can’t even try to win. Writing is a collaborative process, but that doesn’t mean it’s done by committee, or to please everybody who might encounter it. I am trying, at all times, to push the voices out of my head that demand something from the story I’m not intending to give. It’s not their book. It’s mine.

It’s just a lot easier to feel that about The Butterfly Assassin — a book that I am proud of, a book I’m currently listening to on audio again and feeling quietly pleased with — than it is to feel it about the sequel, which is currently a mess, and which I don’t totally know how to fix right now.

I will fix it. This is an inevitable stage of editing, and I’ve been through it enough times to know that the “hating every word on the page” phase is both real and temporary. Doesn’t mean I enjoy it while it’s happening, and having to live up to book one puts a level of pressure on that I haven’t experienced before. Listening to the audiobook is helping me keep the rhythms of book two’s prose consistent with book one’s, but it’s also reminding me of all the ways that the first book is polished and good, making the contrast… stark.

Mostly, however, I would like to extend a massive apology to every author I secretly judged for years when they talked about their deadlines. Six weeks is not long enough. I agree. I get it now. I had, like, six months to draft this book, and it took me less than one month, but man do I need longer for the editing stage, because it turns out I do all of my thinking after the story is on the page, and not before. Next time, I’m hoping I can wrangle things so that I get less drafting time and more editing time, because I’m in hell.

And with that in mind, I should get back to my edits.

But first: to everyone who has already bought The Butterfly Assassin, thank you so much. Thank you to those who’ve read and reviewed it (reviews on Waterstones and Amazon are super helpful, if you have a minute to leave them!). If you’ve taken a nice picture of it for social media, thank you; if you’ve messaged me to say you enjoyed it, thank you for that too. The small notes of encouragement in my Tumblr inbox have been keeping me going through my edits, and I am very grateful for them.

And if you haven’t picked it up yet, please consider it! Debut authors need all the help we can get.