And we’re back. I’m hoping regular readers of this TBA readalong didn’t enjoy that break too much, since it would suggest you’re not having a great time being bombarded with posts, but if it was a relief, I can’t say I blame you; I’ve thrown kind of a lot of words at you 😅 For those just joining us, we’re following the story of The Butterfly Assassin in real time according to the book’s chronology, and I’m talking about the writing process and worldbuilding. We’re getting into the big dramatic plot moments now, so I recommend jumping back to 17/09, Eraro, to start at the beginning!
It’s now the seventeenth of October. The last time we saw Isabel, she was in hospital, drifting in and out of consciousness – still dying, her decline only slowed by the interventions of Daragh and other Comma medics, not halted. For the last few days, she’s been moving further and further past the point where recovery seems possible, but she’s not all the way gone yet.
And on the seventeenth of October, Isabel remembers. A nightmare, a dream, a memory: it’s the missing piece she’s been lacking, the memory that tells her that the reason she can’t break the code on that one page of notes, the one that might be crucial to saving her, is because it was never her father’s code in the first place – it was hers. She’s the one who designed the poison this way, and she’s the one who wrote it down.
With the last of her strength, Isabel gives Daragh the formula of the antidote, and then her heart stops.
She never thought dying would hurt like this. She would have fought harder, if she knew it would hurt like this.
This is… a dramatic moment. We have the only moment in the book with non-standard formatting, as Isabel’s heartbeat slows and stops on page, and then we have the shortest chapter in the whole book (97 words, if I remember correctly). And by making Isabel the creator of the poison, I made her the agent of her own destruction – but also gave her agency over her own salvation. It’s her knowledge that’s the key to the antidote, not the invisible work of off-screen others.
This was a significant change from early drafts, where Isabel had almost no role in creating her own antidote, but she also had less responsibility in those drafts for the poison itself. Like I said in an earlier post, it was important to me that Isabel is at least partially responsible for her own suffering, and that this doesn’t mean she deserves the pain. But it was also a crucial part in making sure she had narrative agency, and wasn’t only suffering at the hands of others.
I love my tiny <100-word chapter here. I haven’t done it anywhere else in the trilogy; I didn’t want to make a habit of it. It works because it’s the only one, because this moment needs to be dramatic, because Isabel’s organs are failing and her heart has stopped and from her point of view, there’s a strong chance the story ends here.
The reader knows – or thinks they know – that it can’t end here, because there’s still a solid chunk of book left. Isabel’s a third-person narrator, but we’re still very closely in her head and we never see others’ perspectives on the story, so it functions like a first-person narrative. And we do not expect first-person narratives to kill off their sole narrators.
Now, this is where I can hear my beta readers sniggering in the background, because they know full well that I have killed off my sole first-person narrators in the past (and also my first-person narrators in multi-POV books). I have written more first-person death scenes than anyone should write, probably; it’s a problem, I’m incorrigible when it comes to killing them off, I accept this. I had one book where I killed the first-person narrator twice. (She died. Came back wrong. Died again. It was a whole thing.)
What I’m saying is, if you ever pick up one of my books and it has a first-person narrator, do not assume that this means they are safe. They are not. Nobody is safe. I can and will write a first-person death scene. (And ain’t that always a weird experience as a writer. The emotional hangover is real.)
But. Fine. Let’s assume this is not permadeath for Isabel, because we have 150 pages left of the book and also two sequels. We still need to feel it, though. The life-or-death stakes don’t mean anything if death was never really on the table, and the last-minute recovery can’t be a painless, easy experience or it starts to feel like we’re cheating. There has to be a cost to letting a character get that close to death, and this is it. The white heat of agony.
Sorry, Isabel. I feel like she’s really going through it in this part.
These scenes, as you can probably deduce from everything I’ve told you about the journey this book’s edits took, originate from the sixth draft, the AMM rewrite. There, they take more or less the exact form they have in the published book, barring a few stylistic tweaks here and there, so there’s nothing I can show you from those earlier versions that you haven’t already seen in the finished book.
But there’s also a confession I need to make, because while I can’t be one hundred percent sure of this, I think I may… possibly… have stolen a line here? Specifically, the line that opens chapter 24:
There is no relief in waking, only noise.
Bearing in mind that I wrote this line in 2019, and at the time I hadn’t reread the Hunger Games trilogy since around 2013 (I reread them in 2021; that post was written after I sold The Butterfly Assassin, but before that was announced), this was at most a half-remembered homage and possibly a complete accident, but this line has a predecessor. In Mockingjay.
Finnick and I sit for a long time in silence, watching the knots bloom and vanish, before I can ask, ‘How do you bear it?’
Finnick looks at me in disbelief. ‘I don’t, Katniss! Obviously, I don’t. I drag myself out of nightmares each morning and find there’s no relief in waking.’Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins
Okay, it’s five words, and an entirely relatable sentiment for anyone who has ever woken up from something awful to find nothing has improved, so I doubt anyone would be stringing me up for plagiarism even if they could demonstrate that I did this deliberately (and, I will be honest, I don’t know if I did or not). But these days, having noticed the overlap, I prefer to think of it as intertextuality: a commentary on YA books about trauma and violence, about getting trapped in a cycle and becoming somebody you never wanted to be, because you haven’t been given any way out.
When my publisher first started using The Hunger Games as a comp title, I wasn’t sure about it. It was such a global phenomenon that it felt presumptuous, long enough ago that it felt like a throwback (and therefore less relevant to the current market), and my impression of those books had been shaped by the films to the point where the main thing this evoked was “competition” and “love triangle”, neither of which are focus points for my work. (Especially not the latter!)
But when I actually reread the trilogy, I saw a lot of shared themes: the trauma; the societal cycles of violence that disproportionately impact on young people, especially disadvantaged young people; the way that survival instincts and protective instincts can override all else; the impossibility of breaking a cycle while justice and punishment are conflated, etc. And I became extremely okay with that comparison, because it suggested to me that books about trauma, books where teenage girls are messy and violent and awful and hurting, can be hugely popular and influential, even when people keep telling us that nobody wants to read about despair.
Anyway. I’ve confessed my possible theft. Isabel is dying. Daragh has the formula for the antidote, but will it be enough to save her? It’ll be a few days before we find out – on the twentieth of October – so for now, it’s over to you.
How did you feel in this moment, when Isabel’s heart stopped? Do you like weird formatting in books, or does it put you off? If you read the book as an ebook, did you even get to experience the full drama, or did it ruin it by squishing everything into left-alignment? (Because that would be tragic.)
Leave your answers, and any other thoughts, in the comment section below.