Hello friends! I am back with another post in the TBA readalong series, but first, a couple of pieces of news:
- The Butterfly Assassin was the winner of the Young Adult category at the Sheffield Children’s Book Awards on Friday! Yay!
- 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:
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!