Tag: Daragh Vernant

28/11, Funebro (TBA Readalong)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, but…”

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

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

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

Mortimer, please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then there’s Christopher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God. I bloody love Daragh. I really do.

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