If you’re just joining us now, we’re reading The Butterfly Assassin chronologically according to the book’s timeline, and I’m talking about the writing process and all the worldbuilding that didn’t quite make it onto the page. The first post is 17/09, Eraro. We’re now far enough through the books that there are significant spoilers in these posts, so if you’re not ready to learn about later plot points, this is the time to flee!
(And yes, I am adding this paragraph into this post specifically because it opens with a spoiler and I want to make sure it’s pushed below the cut in people’s feeds. CW: we’re talking a lot about death and grief today.)
On Monday the eighth of October, Grace Whittock is murdered.
Emma brings Isabel the news at school, soaked from walking through a rainstorm. A spider has been carved into Grace’s cheek, claiming the kill not for Comma or for Hummingbird, but
a secret third thing a third guild, the one Isabel’s parents defected to form. Seeking help from anyone who might be able to offer it, Isabel and Emma go to Mortimer with the news, and Isabel reveals her past to him. Mortimer is sympathetic, but he can’t solve anything; his abolitionist values, he says, don’t make him a revolutionary, and don’t equip him to solve problems like this. Grace’s death makes it clear to Isabel that her parents won’t hesitate to hurt those around her, and begins to fear for Emma’s safety. She resolves to find her father – in search of revenge, an antidote, answers, or all of the above.
This scene is the first Major Character Death in the book. Like, yeah, poor old Ian Crampton has been dead since chapter one, but this is the first time we’ve lost a character that we actually care about. I receive a lot of outraged messages about this moment in the book – more than I expected, to be honest. I think I get more fury from readers about this death because it’s the first, and until then they still believed this might be the kind of YA book where nobody ever actually dies permanently and everything kind of works out. Which it… very much is not.
Grace has always died at around this point in the book, even when she was Graham, and even when she was less directly involved in helping Isabel’s resist her parents and the guild. In the first draft, Emma brought the news to Isabel in hospital. But it happened a little differently then, a plot point I’d forgotten about: Graham had actually left the city in search of the ingredients for an antidote for Isabel.
“Probably this morning. The rain’s screwed up the body, but that’s the best estimate they can give. They found him just outside Espera. He didn’t have a permit, and when they sent someone out to investigate, they thought at first he might have been shot by a city patrol. They’re meant to just fire warning shots, you know,” she adds, “but sometimes they make mistakes.”
Isabel wonders if Emma’s birth parents got out without being shot, or if they met the same fate. She wonders how many of the other girl’s tears are for the librarian who looked after her and how many are for the family that she might have seen in the same way. “But it wasn’t a city patrol?”
“No. Clearly a sniper. They think it was probably Hummingbird who shot him.” Then she hesitates. “Although he was stabbed too, for good measure, so he wasn’t the only person outside the borders at that point.”
A lot went down differently in that draft, and we’re reaching the point in the book where changing a few characters has had a major impact on the plot. Grace’s death in the published book occurs because she was helping Isabel with the antidote and because somebody who knew this told Isabel’s parents, and received orders to kill her. (More on that later.) Here, though, the culpability is a lot more uncertain, especially as Toni Rolleston has also left the city at this point and it’s implied, later in the scene, that Isabel suspects her of being the one to stab Graham. (An idea that makes absolutely no sense given how the rest of the scene goes down, so I’m not sure what past me was planning there.)
This is one area where looking back at the first draft is both interesting and cringe-inducing. It’s a lot more different from the published book than I remembered, but it’s also… really bad. This section of the first draft deals with Isabel finally obtaining the antidote for her illness, which obviously hasn’t happened yet in the published book, but it’s so incredibly undramatic and Isabel is extremely not involved in the process, which really denies her a lot of agency in the plot.
In the fifth draft, Isabel was once again in hospital, but it was at this point in the book that Michael showed up. Having been spying on Isabel earlier on in the book for Comma, he’s the one who finds Emma hammering on the doors of the hospital with the news and brings her inside – an awkward reunion, to say the least.
Until she sees Emma coming back.
A young man is escorting her – the spy, thinks Isabel first, and then, finally, she recognises the older trainee who saved her life on that job-gone-wrong: Michael. They’re both soaked through. It must be raining.
“I found her hammering on the front door,” says Michael to Daragh, looking past Isabel. “She must have dropped her access card.”
“Emma,” says Isabel; she’ll deal with Michael’s presence later, when she knows her friend is okay. “I thought you were going home.”
Emma just stares. At first, Isabel thinks it’s surprise at seeing her out of bed, until she sees the broken look in Emma’s eyes, and the redness around them. Something’s happened, she’s been crying – whatever she came back to say, it’s something awful.
Isabel finds her voice. “What happened, Emma?”
And Emma says, “Grace Whittock’s dead.”
This draft already has a fair few lines in it that survived in some form until the published version, but it still goes down pretty different. Daragh is present, Michael is present, Isabel is in hospital, etc. One of the major advantages of keeping Isabel out of hospital until much later in the book was that it meant moments like this could have more impact. In the hospital, she’s rarely alone; here, she and Emma can process this between the two of them, without awkward spectators who have no emotional investment in the situation.
(In these early drafts, when Grace’s expertise came from Hummingbird and not from her work as a freelancer, she and Daragh didn’t know each other the way that they do in the published book, though I think in any case their relationship was only ever a professional one.)
It’s not the first exploration of grief in the book – we’ve already talked about Jean – but it’s the first time we’ve seen Isabel try to grapple with bereavement and she’s… not great at it. One of the things she’s struggling with is knowing how upset she’s supposed to be. For Emma, it’s obvious: she’s known Grace for years, she saw her as a mentor figure, they were friends, so of course she’ll react strongly. (If you pre-ordered The Hummingbird Killer, you should’ve got the bonus short story that explores their relationship a bit more.) And that’s always been the case, even since the early drafts, when Graham/Grace let Emma crash on the sofa when she was arguing with Toni.
But Isabel has known Grace less than three weeks. In that time, Grace has gone out of her way to help her and to try to save her life, which creates a more intense bond than you’d expect from someone you’ve known under a month, but it’s still nothing compared to the years Emma’s known her. As such, Isabel feels like an impostor, like she’s not allowed to grieve, like it’s presumptuous to be upset about this.
I have felt this a lot, in recent years, with the loss of people I hardly knew. I wrote about this a couple of years back in the context of an internet acquaintance of mine who died by suicide in 2016: I did not even know her real name until after she was dead, and still there were times when the grief I felt was overwhelming. In May 2020, somebody I knew from university died of COVID. We weren’t close friends, but at the same time, we knew each other well enough that I had a picture of us on my wall, a memory of a departmental trip to Wales. I felt like an impostor grieving for him (I still feel that grief, powerfully, and that sense of presumptuousness) knowing that others had lost their sibling, their best friend, their housemate. They had a claim to grief. I didn’t.
But grief is weird and doesn’t follow rules, and I have always felt it intensely. I feel it about strangers, so of course I would feel it about acquaintances, and so much more with friends – however insubstantial and brief those friendships. Rhodri’s death was a turning point in my experience of the pandemic: I became deeply anxious about going to the supermarket; I hand-sewed myself a mask, because I didn’t know what else to do; I went from hyperproductive in lockdown to spending the summer doing a great slug impression in my bed; I got put back on antidepressants, even though I didn’t want to be on them and they’ve never worked for me.
I wrote those lines before that; I suspect I was thinking of Abigail, my internet acquaintance, when I did. But they’ve only started feeling more true to me as time passes and I’ve found myself facing more of those odd bereavements where I don’t feel like I can justify the way I go to pieces whenever I’m reminded of it, and yet I do, and I keep doing so. And maybe some of those deaths have become proxies in my mind for other anxieties and fears and that’s why they hit so hard, but also I grieved because somebody’s gone who shouldn’t be. Gone, and not coming back.
This one’s not really a fun scene. I don’t have cool worldbuilding insights to share, and I feel like this post is a bummer. All I can really say about my writing process here is that I never, ever want to write books where death is meaningless. Where lives are treated cheaply. And yes: this is a trilogy in which a lot of people die, sometimes very quickly, sometimes off-page. Sometimes, we don’t even learn their names. There are people who would consider that cheap.
But the deaths we do see on the page, like this one, have weight. Have an impact. And I hope that that imbues the whole trilogy with a sense that death matters, and for everyone who dies in half a sentence, there is somebody off-page mourning for them.
I’ve read a lot of books where I never could get emotionally invested, and often a common theme is that the deaths of secondary characters happened too quickly, and nobody mourned them. And while it isn’t always practical to have a plot halt in its tracks so that characters can cry about it – believe me, I’ve faced this same challenge – I struggle to care about a character that the narrative has not present as grievable. If their life doesn’t matter, I find myself asking, why do I care what happens to them?
Grievability is a concept I learned from Judith Butler: it refers to a life that “even before it is lost, is, or will be, worthy of being grieved on the occasion of its loss; the life has value in relation to mortality” (The Force of Nonviolence, p. 75). Lives having value in relation to mortality is something that I think has shaped my writing since long before I had a sociological concept to help me articulate it, and it underpins this trilogy. And, in part, it underpins the trilogy because of all the ways it complicates the morality: if the people Isabel kills are worthy of being grieved, how can we continue to root for her? What makes her sympathetic? This is especially true when she herself doubts her own grievability and her own value in relation to mortality, and the onus is on us to believe that she’s wrong.
Anyway. I said I wasn’t going to dig too deep into analysing what’s actually on the page, and I’ve broken my own rule. And this post is pretty heavy; I feel bad for throwing it at you without anything more hopeful to lift us up at the end. I suppose that’s the nature of a bleak moment in the middle of a book like this – it’s meant to feel dark, with no clear sense of how we’re getting out of this situation. But it still makes for a heavy discussion in a readalong like this, and I don’t entirely know how to add some levity.
So I want to know what you thought of this chapter, how you felt about this first major character death, whether it changed your sense of the book’s tone and where it was going or whether you saw this coming a mile off. And I will see you tomorrow for a couple of scenes that aren’t exactly cheerful, but are a lot less miserable than this one.