Tag: Ronan Atwood

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!

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…