Tag: The Hummingbird Killer

Cover Reveal: Moth to a Flame

My adult books may have taken centre stage in my social media posts lately, not least because I have been mired in line edits and they have been occupying my thoughts, but it’s time to turn out attention back to YA. The third book in my YA assassin trilogy, The Butterfly Assassin, is coming out in May, and today I get to share with you the cover! (And, officially, the title, although you already knew that part.)

So, without further ado, here it is:

The cover of Moth to a Flame by Finn Longman. The cover has a black background, with grey graffiti-style patterns. In the centre is a blue, graffiti-style moth with a pink flame engulfing its left wing. The tagline reads "A city on fire / A killer on the run".

Isn’t it great? I love how strongly it leans into the street art theme: I feel like this genuinely looks like something you could see sprayed on a wall. My group chat are also pleased with how bisexual the colour scheme is. Not that it’s a particularly bi book, although I would say that the casual background queerness of Isabel’s world becomes more apparent in this one and her own efforts to understand (or to lose) herself further illuminate it. It’s a good colour scheme, in any case.

We’ve also broken free of the by day / by night tagline schema that we used for the first two books… a controversial choice, I know, but it’s a very different kind of book, one in which Isabel’s no longer able to maintain the separation of a double life but forced to grapple with everything that’s happened to her, away from the masks and the self-deception that let her ignore it. So we needed a new approach.

Still, I think the three books look pretty cool together:

The covers of all three books in the trilogy side by side. The Butterfly Assassin features a bright blue and yellow butterfly; The Hummingbird Killer a bright red and orange hummingbird, and Moth to a Flame a dark blue and bright pink moth on fire. All have a graffiti effect to them, although it's most pronounced with the third cover.

As for the book itself…

It’s difficult to talk too much about Moth to a Flame without significant spoilers for The Hummingbird Killer, and I know that I have quite a few new blog readers and social media followers who might not have had a chance to pick up the first two books yet. But if The Hummingbird Killer was where I broke everything, Moth to a Flame is where I fix it — or at least, start to put the broken pieces back together.

This book has quite a different tone to the first two. Where The Butterfly Assassin sits comfortably in the YA space with its themes of seeking independence, developing identity outside of your parents’ expectations, balancing school with the rest of your life, and the like, The Hummingbird Killer took us a little further into the crossover zone as Isabel started to live a young adult life, dealing with a day job and a flatmate. Moth to a Flame continues that trajectory, since Isabel is firmly a young adult by this point. At the same time, younger characters (like Sam) allow Isabel a chance to reconnect with a childhood/adolescence she never really got to have, stopping us from slipping all the way into the territory of adult fiction. Still definitely upper YA; I think the official recommendation is 14+, but maybe we might be appealing more to the older readers here.

The mood is a little more introspective and character-focused, compared to the more action-heavy earlier installments, and there’s also considerably less murder. To put that into context: when I tried to keep track of the body count of The Hummingbird Killer, I lost track around 50; by contrast, I think there are 3 murders in Moth to a Flame (or at least, three that have on-page significance/directly impact on our characters, though there are some referenced, off-page deaths). So you can see that’s a bit of a shift.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about this — that the book’s focus on healing, recovery, justice, and breaking cycles of violence would be a disappointment to those looking for a stabby, action-filled thriller. But it was important to me to write it like this, in opposition to my original plans for the book back in 2014-15 (which were just so very depressing). This story is substantially about grappling with harm that can’t be undone and damage that can’t be fixed, and when I say that this is a more hopeful story of healing, I don’t mean to suggest that everything’s going to be all right for everyone. But my original plans for the book were bleak, and I realised I wasn’t interested in telling that story, and that I had to do something different with this one than I’d done with the first two.

I joked on Tumblr that this is the Bucky Barnes Recovery Fic of the series. I have a soft spot for these stories — stories that step outside of the action and breathless plot of canon to focus on the slow process of a traumatised ex-assassin learning how to be a person again, grappling with grief and guilt, trying to make sense of their culpability for the acts they were forced by others to commit. Bucky and Isabel have quite different backstories, and I wouldn’t want to overstate the influence these fics had on me; nevertheless, these are the stories that taught me sometimes the most narratively interesting thing you can do with a character like this is allow them to heal and, through that healing, ask difficult questions about justice and punishment and repairing harm.

And, finally, this is also a book where the underlying themes of the whole series become significantly less subtle. I have always been criticising the military recruitment of teenagers, the arms industry that places profit above lives, and the social and political attitudes that enable these to continue, but this book’s wider geographical scope (no longer limited to the walled city of Espera) means this stops being metaphorical or abstract and starts being overt. Again, this might be an unpopular choice, but there’s no other way I could have written this book that would have felt true to me.

So, basically, this is where it becomes most obvious that this trilogy about assassins was written by a pacifist. Which some people might not like! But, on the other hand, I think in the world we live in right now, there’s a need for stories about grappling with aftermath and recovery — stories where love and found family and cosy scenes with cake don’t exist only in a low-stakes, low-danger environment, but are deliberately built as an act of resistance and a process of recovery. It’s a story about the power of friendship: not the power to prevent violence or harm, necessarily, but to create a life after violence, and rebuild safety from the ground up.

(Once it’s out, I’d love to do a big long thinky post about my epigraph choices for all three books and what they signify for me; the one for Moth to a Flame is very much about friendship in the face of monstrosity and violence.)

Anyway. Those are the vibes of the book. But, truthfully, I am mainly relying on the cliffhanger ending of The Hummingbird Killer to serve as the main pre-order incentive for this one, because if you read that and don’t want to know what happens next, well, I don’t think anything I say is going to change your mind 😅

Just in case, though, here’s a quick graphic showing some of the other things the book contains:

A graphic showing the cover of Moth to a Flame by Finn Longman. Around it are words with arrows pointing to the cover: "unhealthy coping mechanisms", "significantly less murder than books 1 and 2", "murder rehab (aka healing through friendship)", "cake", "revolution", "Leeds?", "gay communist support group", "traumatised ex-assassin learns how to be a person", "grief", "justice", "found family". 23.05.24, pre-order now.

I mean, who could resist that all important trope: “Leeds?”

(Yes, this book is largely set in Leeds. Yes, that’s a spoiler for The Hummingbird Killer. Yes, several of the locations in the book are real. No, none of the people in the book are real. Yes, this is why I went on a research trip to Leeds last year and took a truly disproportionate number of pictures of weird corners of the central library. Now you know!)

I think we’re still tweaking the cover copy and final blurb, but here’s the blurb as it appears on retail sites currently:

Isabel Ryans has fled Espera, leaving behind her identity as teen assassin the Moth. Now she’s trying to adjust to the reality of the outside world. But her grief and trauma are catching up with her, and surrounded by civilians who will never understand what life is like in the walled city, she feels more alone than ever.

When a journalist is murdered nearby, suspicion automatically falls on Isabel. And inside Espera’s walls, the abolitionist movement is gaining strength. When Isabel’s search for the killer leads to an unexpected reunion, she’s forced to decide whether she can really leave the city behind, and what part the Moth might have to play in the uprising.

Is Isabel Ryans the city’s saviour . . . or its scapegoat?

Moth to a Flame will be released on 23rd May, and it’s available to pre-order now.

Farewell to 2023

Is it a cliché to write a round-up of the year on New Year’s Eve, or a tradition? I suppose the answer probably depends on how much you enjoy reading the round-up, and how much of it seems like poorly concealed bragging on the part of the writer. Either way, I’m doing it anyway, because I promised myself I would blog more this year and this is the kind of thing one blogs about. Bite me.

2023 has been a mixed year, as so many years are. In many ways, it was a vast improvement on 2022, primarily because I only moved house once, rather than five times in ten months, as was the case between Nov 2021 and Sep 2022. This offered some much-needed stability and gave me a chance to start recovering from the past few years: the profound isolation of living alone during extended lockdowns, and the disruption and trauma of my year of Constantly Moving House.

The year began with uncertainty, as I submitted my PhD funding application with no idea whether I would obtain funding and therefore whether I’d be doing a PhD at all. Actually obtaining said funding was far more complicated than anticipated and dragged on until August, but I did secure it, and I’m now a term into my PhD. The result is that the year is ending with a greatly increased level of stability and certainty: I know where I will be for the next three years, and I know what I will be doing. Summer 2026 is the earliest I will finish my PhD (it may well take longer), and since I know the main outlines of my publishing schedule until 2027 (more on that later), I can make plans for the next couple of years that don’t involve extended periods of job-hunting — a massive relief.

Me looking dapper in a garden wearing a waistcoat, suit trousers, shirt, and tie, leaning on my cane and holding onto a tree with the other hand.
Matriculation, October 2023

I can’t, of course, guarantee that I’ll stay in this house, even if I decide it’s worth putting up with its extortionately expensive electric heating and immersion heater for another year or two. My landlady might decide to sell, or to raise the rent beyond what I can manage; I might decide that with my diminishing mobility, it’s not viable to continue living four miles away from my department with only an electric bike for transport, and attempt to move somewhere closer. But I will be staying in this city, expensive and imperfect as it is.

There is a great relief in that, after moving so much last year. There’s something profoundly dislocating about being completely unable to put down roots or make IRL friends because as soon as you get to know somebody, you end up moving away and never seeing them again. My closest friends have been primarily internet friends for years, and I value those communities greatly, but there’s something alienating about having no friends at all in your local area. Recovering from top surgery last Spring, alone in a flat I’d only just moved into, made that very clear; starting to make friends and connections in North London in the summer and then being forced to move again and leave them behind emphasised it.

After repeated moves, some of which weren’t your choice, it’s hard to trust that you’ll stay somewhere long enough to make it worth putting down roots and building connections. It took me nine months in my last rental house before I could start thinking about improving my living space with a loo roll holder and some other small bits of DIY, because I was still constantly on edge and waiting to leave. (And since they put our rent up 11%, we did end up moving again after the year’s contract ended. But a year is much better than three months.)

But I have been sixteen months in Cambridge now, and I will be here until at least summer 2026. That is a level of stability I have not known for… well, arguably my entire adult life, since undergrad was characterised by being uprooted from college at the end of every term and returning to my hometown. Since turning 18, the longest I have lived in the same place (house/flat, but also city) is 14 months, in Cork — will 2024 be the year I beat that record? Maybe. Maybe, finally, I can start to hope as much.

(I am so very tired of moving house.)

Rectangular plastic planters against a brick wall with pansies and violas in flower.
Flowers alongside my house.

There have been challenges, though. Mentally, the last couple of years did a number on me, something which continued to affect my work life, my personal life, and my spiritual life for a solid chunk of 2023; recovery wasn’t linear. My health has continued to fluctuate, but with a general downward trend. Much of February was characterised by a bout of vestibular neuritis, an inner-ear infection which is deeply inconvenient for somebody who cycles everywhere and was, at the time, participating in a ballet show. Balance being essential to both ballet and bicycles, it made for a rough few weeks. That was, it turned out, the end of my dancing for the foreseeable: a recurrence of a knee injury from 2021 and a longstanding hip problem really made themselves known and got gradually worse. In July, I began using a cane almost all the time when walking, having previously only used it intermittently, and this proved to be a long-term fixture, lasting the rest of the year. Even with the cane, I’m not able to walk very much.

This loss of my mobility has been difficult to deal with. The first half of the year was substantially enhanced by being able to go for walks at Milton Country Park or to visit the bunnies at the Science Park, both a short cycle ride from my home in North Cambridge, and while I still occasionally make it there to look at the ducks, I can no longer enjoy tramping around the lakes the way I did before. In the summer, I went to Utrecht for the International Congress of Celtic Studies, and to Donegal for an Irish-language course, and found both experiences significantly marred by inaccessibility and the challenges added by my reduced mobility. This autumn, I’ve been unable to attend protests and demonstrations because I can’t walk or stand enough to participate. And not being able to dance — not knowing when I might be able to dance again — is its own kind of grief.

A whole-cast photo from a ballet production. I am in the front row, sitting cross-legged wearing red ballet tights and a loose black shirt.
I have a talent for being cast in a character role that means I get to be in the front of group pictures while actually not doing very much in the show itself.

I hope that 2024 will bring my mobility back to me. I’m seeing a physio, and I’m having an X-ray this month to try to get to the bottom of the hip problems, which are long-standing but dramatically worse than they used to be. It’s hard to imagine I’ll get better fully, when these injuries have already lingered so long, but I can’t let myself believe they’re permanent. Most realistically, this episode will be like the one that afflicted my hands in 2013: I’ll get very slowly better, enough to do most of the activities I used to do, but perhaps never to the same extent and always with the threat of pain. A compromise with my body. But we’ll have to see.

And there have been unexpected challenges of the smaller, less existential kind: three punctures in six days when my bike is my only means of transport was a bad week, especially as one involved replacing the entire motor wheel (£££); the general torment of potholes and terrible weather as a cyclist; being harassed by transphobes on Twitter (that’s one part of the site I won’t miss) after accidentally drawing the attention of Glinner; badly timed train strikes and storms disrupting journeys… all the usual challenges that are always skimmed over in the highlights reels of people’s lives. Well, maybe not the transphobes part. May was a complicated month.

There have been victories this year, too, particularly when it comes to publishing. The Hummingbird Killer was released in mid May, and though it’s hardly been a bestseller and reviews have trickled in very slowly and in small enough numbers to make me concerned for my sales, it seems to have mostly been well-received by fans of the first book. The French edition was released in November, with a gorgeous cover; I eagerly await receiving my own copy of this, and of the ‘poche’ edition of The Butterfly Assassin (a smaller, cheaper paperback format that the French publishers release around a year after the original large-format fancy paperback).

Me on stage with my cane and a microphone, wearing a green mask, a green corduroy jacket and brown corduroy trousers.
Accepting the YA Category award at the Sheffield Children’s Book Awards in November.

The Butterfly Assassin was shortlisted for the CrimeFest 2023 Best YA Crime Novel, although it didn’t win; it won the Silver Award at the Sussex Amazing Book Awards 2023, voted for by school students across Sussex; and it won the YA Category at the Sheffield Book Awards 2023, run by the Sheffield Library Service and voted for by readers. I’m extremely grateful for these awards, which show that my book does resonate with its target audience. I first wrote The Butterfly Assassin when I was 18, as the book I wanted to read and couldn’t find, but that was a long time ago, and I’m increasingly aware that I no longer know what it’s like to be a teenager. I think it’s very different in 2023 than it was in 2013! But clearly, if the teens are voting for my book, then I am tapping into something real and meaningful about that experience, and I’m extremely grateful for that validation.

Due to the British Library’s extended outage, I can’t access the PLR loans dashboard, but when I checked the figures earlier this autumn, I’d had something like 930 library loans between July 2022 and June 2023 — something that means more to me than sales or awards, since as a teenager, almost all of my reading was from libraries. We didn’t have a bookshop locally, and it would have cost a fortune to keep up with my reading speed, so that, for me, is the pinnacle of author life: to be in libraries, and to be read. These would be mostly The Butterfly Assassin, since The Hummingbird Killer was released at the end of the reporting period, but there were a few loans for THK in there too.

A bookshop mostly full of people sitting on folding chairs, and me at the front with my books on a table next to me, talking.
Waterstones St Neots, July 2023

I had the chance to do a couple of events, including a book club in St Neots which had a great turnout — a big improvement on last autumn, when I took a lengthy bus trip for an event nobody turned up to :| (It happens. It’s a rite of passage. Didn’t make it any more fun at the time.) I held the launch for The Hummingbird Killer at Housman’s in London, and manage to pressgang enough friends into coming to make up for those who couldn’t make it due to train strikes. I signed books in a variety of bookshops, with my favourite — for the novelty and surprise of it — being The Four Masters Bookshop in Donegal Town, because I didn’t expect them to have my books at all, but when I popped in en route to the Gaeltacht, there they were.

Me in the Four Masters Bookshop in Donegal Town, holding up copies of my books. I'm wearing a raincoat and a rainbow mask, and my hair is wet.
Donegal Town, August 2023

During the second half of this year, I edited Moth to a Flame, the third book in the trilogy. I finished my copyedits today, and am preparing to send them in, probably tomorrow, to meet my deadline of the third of January. This book has presented unique challenges, and I have no idea how it’ll go down with readers, but after a few existential wibbles about saying goodbye to a series I’ve been working on for my entire adult life, I think I’ve finally reached the point where I can be confident that I’ve told the story I was trying to tell to the best of my ability at this time. And maybe in three years I’ll look back on it with regrets or wish I’d written it differently. But that’ll mean I’ve improved as a writer, so if anything, that would be a good thing.

Moth to a Flame will be released in May, like the first two, and I hope to be able to share a cover with you soon. (I’ve seen it, it’s great, but it needed some tweaks and refinements before it can go public, so it’s not up yet. Soon, I hope. Just as soon as we can settle on a tagline.)

And what’s next? Well, something very different. Because one of this year’s victories was that I did secure another book deal, after an agonising sub process, and I can’t wait for the official announcement so I can tell you all about it. It’s a new direction for my career as a writer, on the publishing side, but it’s one I’ve been working towards for a long time on the writing side. Those who follow me on social media (and especially those who look at my Instagram Story) may have an idea of what this entails, based on what I’ve been researching and editing recently, but soon I’ll get to tell the rest of you, too.

And a year wouldn’t be complete without writing something new — ideally, something unplanned and spontaneous 😅 Last year, it was the accidental vampire romance novel. This year, in February-March, I drafted a brand new book, provisionally titled The Animals We Became. It’s a queertrans retelling of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, the story of Blodeuwedd, exploring gender, sexuality, and trauma, with an unhealthy dose of animal transformations along the way. Although it’s only a first draft, I’m really proud of the book so far, and really excited to see what more I can do with it over the next year.

On the academic side, this year finally saw the publication of my “trans Cú Chulainn” article — an article that explores boundary-crossing, category crisis, gender, and Cú Chulainn, based on my undergrad dissertation and substantially revised in 2020-21, but lost in the academic publishing void for a while. It received some very gratifying attention from those who’d been waiting patiently for it, and I was glad of that. I was also asked to contribute an article about a conference I attended about The Lament for Art O’Leary in Cambridge earlier this year, based on a blog post I wrote about it, which was published in Dúchas II in the autumn. There’s more about both of these articles on the ‘Research‘ page of this site.

A photo showing my three published peer-reviewed articles so far: a copy of Quaestio Insularis 22, labelled "Láeg article"; a copy of Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 83, labelled "Maines article", and a copy of the Proceedings of the Association of Celtic Students VIII, labelled "Cú Chulainn article".

I also had another article accepted for publication, pending revisions — submitted in January and accepted in August, I haven’t yet managed to finish the revisions due to life getting much busier! But as long as the academic publishing void doesn’t catch me again, I can be reasonably sure that 2024 will see the publication of that one, which looks at the role of Láeg mac Ríangabra in different recensions of Táin Bó Cúailnge. This was my first time having an article accepted as though I were any academic — i.e., not a postgrad conference proceedings, not a prize for ‘young scholars’, but a standard, regular journal with peer reviewers who don’t know me or my age or anything else about me. So that was quite exciting. Or will be once I eventually get around to finishing it.

My year wasn’t as action-packed or full of travel as some people’s seems to have been — I’m not much of a traveller, and I’m still being very cautious about COVID. Still, it involved a few trips, mostly of the research variety. In the spring I went to Yorkshire with my parents, to visit York, Leeds, and “Espera” — or at least, the area where Espera would be if it were real. You’ll see some of the fruits of this research trip in Moth to a Flame.

Me grinning in front of a road sign for Weaverthorpe
“Espera”, April 2023

In July, as I mentioned above, I headed to Utrecht for the International Congress of Celtic Studies, my first time in the Netherlands. My paper went well and I made some great connections with others in my field, although I was also in the grip of profound PhD funding stress and also trying to do the paperwork / financial referencing for a house, so it was quite a stressful trip. In August, I went to Donegal again for two weeks to work on my Irish, and managed not to catch COVID there this time. Did buy rather more books than I meant to, though. (It doesn’t count if they’re in Irish…)

I left my library job at the beginning of September, and the autumn was dominated by starting my PhD, as well as edits and research for writing projects. This included trying to make the most of the library resources available to me, and to visit rare books / special collections as much as I can — I want to see all the manuscripts they’ll let me get my hands on! The autumn also included the readalong I hosted here for The Butterfly Assassin. I’m not entirely sure how successful this was as an effort to build community on this blog and encourage discussions and comments, but it was an interesting exercise for me, especially alongside book 3 edits.

I didn’t achieve everything in 2023 that I set out to do. For starters, I set a goal of trying to make a YouTube video about medieval Irish literature once a month, or at least 10 overall, but I haven’t made a single one since last December, despite getting halfway through a script for several. I also decided I was going to try to go to bed by 1am, and to work backwards to midnight; unfortunately, I remain entirely nocturnal and this has not happened. (Nor have I eaten vegetables five times per week, and as for “walk a bit more to improve stamina for knee/hip”… yeah, my knee and hip had other plans.)

But I think I rolled with 2023’s punches a little better than I took 2022’s, and they were lighter blows, too. Yes, there were moments when I was so stressed I wanted to throw up. Yes, I had my share of anxiety attacks and days when I called in sick because I couldn’t face getting out of bed. And no, I did not make it to Quaker meeting more than about four times the entire year — another legacy of 2022 and bad experiences, as well as a side-effect of my nocturnal habits making it hard for me to get up on a Sunday morning. But that’s okay. Not everything goes to plan all the time. We survive and we carry on.

I can’t predict what 2024 will bring, but I feel a little more confident making plans than I have done these last few years. And I’m trying to make the kinds of plans that will help me feel happier and more grounded in my life — plans that will help me put down roots, live a less chronically online life, and find more of a work-life balance. They may not succeed, but the trying is important.

If 2023 has been a good year for you, then I hope 2024 builds on those joys and brings you even greater ones, and if 2023 was terrible, then I hope that rock bottom proves a strong foundation for a much better and brighter future.

Questions Without Answers

I’ve been thinking recently about relatability, moral ambiguity, and the way that misunderstanding how these two concepts can work together in a book is part of what feeds a lot of online morality policing and accusations of Being Problematic.

(Warning: there might be some mild spoilers for The Butterfly Assassin in this post. If you haven’t read it yet, now’s a great time; it’s only 99p on Kindle!)

There is a tendency, in this day and age, for the main metric by which characters are scored to be how ‘relatable’ they are. “I couldn’t relate to them” is sometimes presented as the start and end of criticism. This is understandable. We want stories where we can see ourselves, and which tap into emotions we ourselves have felt: if we relate, we feel all of it more strongly, because it has resonances with our own lives.

Of course, this has also historically limited the variety of books on the shelves, since cishet white abled stories are seen as a ‘default’ template onto which all others should find a way to project themselves, while stories featuring marginalised characters are seen as ‘niche’, only appealing to those who resemble the characters, and thus hard to market. This has started to change, but there are still those who see it as a fundamentally political decision to include women in a book, let alone any other groups, so it’s an ongoing process.

But more and more people are a) finding stories with characters who look like them (yay!) and to whom they can relate, and b) realising that they don’t need to look like the characters to relate to their experiences, because many emotions are universal.

The trouble comes, however, when those ‘relatable’ characters make morally questionable or outright bad choices. We don’t want to relate to the character who did the evil thing, because what does that say about us? And this, in turn, leads to two phenomena: the purity policing of media consumption (“if you like X, you must condone Y, which makes you a Bad Person”), or the refusal to allow fictional characters ever to be truly morally complex (leading to ‘morally grey’ characters who are honestly just vaguely off-white, and anything actually bad that they do has to be strictly off-screen).

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to The Butterfly Assassin and its sequels. This is an unabashedly political series (I am certainly making a point about societal cycles of violence and what happens to vulnerable young people when a society decides war and weapons are more important than their lives), but that doesn’t mean the characters act in ways that reflect my political beliefs. In fact, they very often do the opposite of what you’d expect someone with my values to do, and aren’t ‘punished’ by the narrative because of it. And while certain aspects of the characterisation draw directly on my own experiences and are very relatable to me, in other regards I have very little in common with my own characters.

I don’t see this as a contradiction at all, in part because I think the purpose of fiction is to give us questions, not answers — and because I think what makes a character relatable is their traits, and not their circumstances.

Let’s start with that second point there.

Isabel, the protagonist of The Butterfly Assassin, is a survivor of an illegal training programme for child assassins, and she first killed somebody when she was twelve years old. I very much hope this is not a relatable circumstance — ideally, nobody who reads this book is thinking, “Yeah, that’s exactly what happened to me!” True, as the story continues and she’s manipulated into signing her future away in service to a murderous organisation, the parallels with real-world military recruitment of teenagers become stronger (see my very angry author’s note about that), but generally speaking, the reader is not expected to relate to her circumstances.

Furthermore, the choices that Isabel has to make are a direct result of those circumstances, which frequently results in her choosing to hurt others in order to save herself. These are also hopefully not choices that readers will face on a regular basis — at least not with such high stakes. Most of us will never be put in a position of feeling like we need to kill our classmate to protect ourselves (thankfully!), so again: not relatable.

At the same time, Isabel has character traits that are deeply relatable. She’s a teenager who feels like she doesn’t have control over her life, because everybody is trying to make her decisions for her. She feels trapped by other people’s expectations, and doesn’t want to spend her life doing what her parents want her to do. What teenager hasn’t felt that, to some extent? Isn’t that just fundamentally what being a teenager is like?

(I often say that the popularity of dystopian YA may well be because being a teenager is one of the most fundamentally dystopian experiences there is: constantly feeling the weight of the future while being given no autonomy over the present, your experiences and activities curtailed by higher authorities, a life ruled by exams and grades and league tables, a body that doesn’t feel like yours, etc.)

Some of Isabel’s other ‘relatable’ traits are more specific, but even if they’re minority experiences, they’re not rare. Pain and illness have left her feeling like she has no control over her body. She craves interpersonal connection, but feels like an outsider and doesn’t know how to make friends. She’s prone to sabotaging the good things in her life, because past trauma has taught her that she won’t be able to keep them, and she doesn’t know how to trust that they’ll stick around. All of these are things that real people experience (ask me how I know).

The reason that readers can engage, emotionally, with Isabel’s unrelatable circumstances is because these universal, or at least real, aspects of her character function as a window. No, we don’t know what it’s like to be trained as a killer from childhood. Yes, we do know how it feels to struggle with other people’s expectations of us. No, we’ve never killed a burglar who broke into our house. Yes, we’ve made a social interaction weird because we didn’t know how to respond to somebody’s friendly overtures.

But if somebody whose base-level traits, freed from their circumstances, are similar to ours can do the terrible things that Isabel does… what does that mean for us?

And that’s where we get to the issue of questions and answers.

When we start relating to a character who does terrible things, we are being asked a question: in their place, would you make the same choice? The story has given us the pieces we need to understand why that character made the choice they did, but only we, the reader, have the necessary information about our own lives to know if we would do the same.

There isn’t necessarily a right answer to this question. Which is to say: there might (or might not) be a morally right answer, but this is fiction, not a court of law or a moment of divine judgment. There isn’t a right answer in the sense that a story isn’t better or worse as a result of whether you’d make the same choice as the character. Probably, a story is better or worse if you cannot understand why the character, in their circumstances and with their traits, made that choice — but you can say, “No, I wouldn’t have done that,” and it doesn’t make it less appropriate for the story that they did.

Sometimes, as per the morality policing of problematic media, it can seem like there’s an expectation for the story to give you the answer: you should do this. you should not do that. this is correct. this is incorrect. Characters who make ‘morally wrong’ choices should be Punished By The Narrative, so that the reader understands that this was the wrong thing to do. Characters who make ‘morally right’ choices may be Permitted A Happy Ending.

But I don’t think we should be asking stories for answers. I think stories are supposed to give us the questions, and we are supposed to answer them ourselves. And often, the answers aren’t that simple.

Isabel interests me to write because her story asks, “If the only way you could survive was to kill others, would you do it?” and I don’t know the answer. I value life. I think death is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to a person, because almost anything else still carries the potential for improvement, but death is an ending. Death means nothing can ever get better, ever again. It terrifies me, and the idea of taking life from somebody else is absolutely horrifying.

Which is why I don’t have an answer. Death terrifies me, so I would do many things to avoid it. But it’s so horrifying to me that I can’t imagine being able to live with the knowledge that I’d caused it, either. What would I do? I have no idea. I have no idea because I have never been put in that situation; because my imagination cannot decide what level of guilt is livable; because I have never truly been forced to confront the question of how badly I want to survive.

But Isabel has.

Isabel, in her circumstances, with her training and her trauma, is not me. Some of her underlying personality comes from me, and some of her traits are relatable to me; other aspects of her personality and nature are wildly unlike mine. (She’s good at science. I haven’t done a STEM subject since 2012. We are not the same.) Her circumstances, though, are what make the difference, and for her, the choice is clearer. Would it be clear for me, if I were in her place?

These questions mean that when I write Isabel, or when I read her, I do so with the knowledge in the back of my mind that I cannot guarantee I would do any differently in her place. I like to think I would. In fact, I like to think I’d magically find a third option where everything would be okay for everybody. But the story gives me a question I can’t answer: who am I, when it boils down to it? Whose life do I value more: mine, or others’?

Now, The Butterfly Assassin is making a point about violence. It is not morally neutral. The entire trilogy is underpinned by the idea that violence begets violence: further violence can’t break the cycle, only perpetuate it. But it’s also saying that those trapped within that cycle don’t necessarily have a choice. Kill or die is a question where the answer is always a dead body, and the only question is whose; there is no solution. The only solution is to destroy the very system asking that question in the first place, and that is not something you can do as a powerless seventeen-year-old suffering from severe pain.

And of course, the very fact that Isabel isn’t in a position to dismantle the system she’s living within is asking other questions: who is in a position to change it? What would it take to create a society that is safe, and where people can thrive, and where an economy of violence doesn’t take priority over people’s lives? (And is that something we should be doing closer to home?) But spelling out those questions too explicitly runs the risk of presenting the whole series as a didactic parable, and that’s never been my intention. Sure, I’m making a point, but I want readers to be asking themselves those questions, not trying to answer me.

Maybe we’ll see the answers to some of these questions as the series goes on. Plot, of course, requires a certain amount of answers, others you end up with an unresolved mess and a lot of disappointed readers. But characters, and morality, and just how far we’d need to be pushed before we’d snap in the same way that they’d snap… that’s not necessarily something an author can or should be trying to answer. That one’s for the readers.

So, yes, I think it’s valuable when a character is relatable. There’s also a lot to be said for the questions asked by a character we can’t relate to at all, but that’s a different blog post. But when we relate to a character, it makes the story’s moral questions feel real. When we understand a character as somebody we could, in the right circumstances, become, the questions become harder and the answers ever more slippery. But a character’s relatability should not lure us into thinking the author wants us to do what the character is doing, and by extension, condones what the character is doing.

No — the character does what they do because that’s what’s most interesting for the story, and sometimes (often!), the interesting option is not the most morally correct option. It’s the one that raises more questions, that perpetuates the state of crisis, that forces us to confront something about the assumptions we make. The ones that leave us without answers, because it’s by not being given them that we start to find them for ourselves.

If you would like to see a potentially relatable teenager making truly terrible choices amidst an array of bad options, The Butterfly Assassin is out now and The Hummingbird Killer is available to pre-order, or to request on NetGalley!

Debuts And Daffodils

It often feels, rightly or wrongly, that publishing — and the book industry more widely — is obsessed with the debut author. The newest, shiniest author, whose first book has the potential to reshape the nature of literature. How could they not be? A debut author is a blank page onto which any manner of future can be projected. A debut author usually brings with them years of silent, unpaid work before anything came to fruition, but we won’t talk about that. Let’s focus, instead, on the overnight success, on the hottest new title, on the sparkling new voice.

And then the debut author writes a second book, and suddenly they are no longer special and shiny, but only one of many, many authors trying to make enough sales that paying rent might be a possibility one day in the future.

I don’t think this bias is as strong as it feels when you are the debut author, staring down a future where you’ve lost your shine. In fact, there are areas in which it’s the opposite. The number of times I’ve heard someone say, “Oh, it’s really rare for debuts to be included in that list / invited to that festival / nominated for that award,” probably far outweigh the opportunities that are specific to newbie authors.

But still, there’s a peculiar emphasis on that first book, a pressure to be a success right out of the gate so that you’ll get the chance to try again, because if your sales are poor, it might be the end of everything. Is this true? Maybe. Sometimes. But there are also many, many authors whose ‘overnight success’ came with a later book; authors who went five years without selling anything, and then landed a bigger deal than they ever managed before; authors who never hit a bestseller list but kept those slow, steady sales at a solid enough level to build themselves a career.

They’re just not the stories we remember, when we’re trying to work out where we belong in the teeming pack of authors on the internet, frantically trying to market their books when they actually hate promo and would much rather be writing.

(Okay, I know there are writers who claim they would rather be doing anything but writing, and will clean their house and pair their socks rather than sit down at a computer and write. Maybe they’re telling the truth, though I have to wonder why you’d become a writer if that was the case. But for me, while there are days when it feels like pulling teeth and I’d much rather be napping, writing is still the thing I do when I’m supposed to be doing literally anything else, because I love it.)

I’m thinking about what it means to be a debut author, because I’m coming to the end of my time as one. Perhaps it’s already ended, magically dissolved the moment the calendar rolled over to 2023 and a new year of fresh-faced authors stepped forward into the sun. By my measure, it’s not over until The Hummingbird Killer publishes, in two months today — but two months doesn’t feel very long, standing on this side of it.

I can’t decide if I’m afraid of losing my debut shine, or if it’s a relief. It never felt quite true, anyway, to describe The Butterfly Assassin as my ‘first’ novel — it was the fifteenth book I wrote, of twenty-four that I’ve drafted so far (the most recent of which I finished on Wednesday; more on that soon, possibly). Yes, I was brand new to the world of publishing, and yes, it’s been a learning curve. But I have been writing for more than half my life. Sometimes it feels like writing is the only thing that makes sense to me.

The debut label can be a double-edged sword. Of course one hopes that the first book is the worst you’ll ever publish — peaking too early leaves you with nowhere to go. But some reviewers latch onto the concept of debut as meaning inexperienced, and while I’m definitely inexperienced at Being Published, I don’t, at this point, consider myself at all inexperienced at writing; I have too many millions of words under my belt for that. That means it stings, sometimes, to receive those inadvertently patronising compliments that manage to hit like an insult, like remarking that the writing style is surprisingly good for a debut.

So it feels more… honest, somehow? to no longer be a debut, to be settling myself in for a career. Or at least the hopes of a career. A second book (a sophomore novel, some writers call it, but I’m perfectly happy calling it my ‘second’ book, I don’t see why the fancy terminology is needed) is still only the foundations, but it’s bringing me one step closer to building something of this. Staking a claim on the ground ahead: I’m here to stay. This wasn’t a one-off.

Saying that, I think I have an easier transition to this next stage of my writing career than many do, because my debut was the first book in a trilogy, and so I have two more books on the way in the same world. I can bring my audience with me, rather than having to convince them to jump ship to something new. And I’d drafted both books before the first was published, so I didn’t have the torture of writing them with readers breathing down my neck and reviews haunting my mind, clamouring for more of this or less of that and confusing my sense of the story.

But I’ve also faced some challenges, which shape my experiences — and I’m not talking about being trans, disabled, and releasing a book with zero romance in a very romance-led genre, although I can’t say any of those things helped. No, the biggest challenges really have been practical ones, and the biggest of those is the fact that I moved house five times in ten months last year, with The Butterfly Assassin publishing about two-thirds of the way through that absolute nightmare of transitional stages and constant uprooting.

Some of those moves were a surprise. I would move to a new area, start befriending the booksellers and exploring possibilities for school visits and other connections in the community — and then I’d be forced to uproot myself again, and leave those bookshops behind, and start again somewhere else. I had some lovely local bookshops at the time that TBA came out, but less than two months later I moved again, leaving them behind and all the connections I’d begun to forge.

By the time I arrived in Cambridge in September, still with lingering covid symptoms, I was too drained and fatigued by the past year to have it in me to start that process again. I called in at a bookshop or two, but trying to catch the attention of an overworked and underpaid Waterstones employee at a large shop like the one in central Cambridge isn’t the same as hanging out in the little independent shop around the corner from your house, chatting to the booksellers for half an hour about everything and nothing. It’s friendships, or at least the potential for them, that I’ve lost there, as much as publicity opportunities, or whatever business-minded way you want to look at it.

As such, I’ve spent a lot of time feeling displaced, uprooted, the most visible champions of my book no longer local to me. No school connections, no idea who to talk to about doing events; that means no World Book Day visits, no assemblies. I did have one library event a few months ago… to which nobody at all turned up, which rather discouraged me from trying again. It’s exhausting, you know, trying to put down roots and then ripping them up again, over and over. After you’ve done that a few times, it becomes a lot easier to give up on trying.

So, yes, my publicity efforts faltered. My attempts to organise events fell by the wayside; I prioritised my day job, and my post-covid fatigue relegated me to bed most of the rest of the time, at least for the first few months. I made one brief visit back to central London in January for the first time since the summer, and called by half a dozen bookshops — it reminded me what it was like to Be An Author, because I hadn’t been able to do that for a while. Otherwise I felt like I was trapped in a box, shouting into the void that was Twitter, and increasingly without the energy to do even that.

But I wanted roots. I wanted to stay. I needed to believe I’d live in this house more than three months, more than six months, maybe more than a year. Not because I like the house particularly, but because I needed some firmer ground to plant myself into, until I could feel settled enough that making connections even felt worth it and I wasn’t perpetually waiting for them to be taken away again.

And I made a promise to myself in the form of planting daffodils and tulips in our front flowerbed, after I’d broken up the horrible hard soil and cleared out some of the rocks and added actual decent compost on top. The bulbs said: I will still be here in the spring to see these flowers.

My daffodillies started coming out these last couple of weeks. It is spring, and I am still here.

A flowerbed in front of a brick wall, with daffodils. One has come out in full flower; another is about to emerge. Closed buds are visible on some of the others.

And the bulbs I planted with The Butterfly Assassin last year… well, I am still here, and The Hummingbird Killer comes out in two months, and I will no longer be a debut, just as I will no longer be newly moved into a house with a front flowerbed made entirely of rocks, weeds, and the saddest of sad soil. (Even if I really do need to do some weeding soon.)

I think not being a debut will be nice. Maybe there’ll be less pressure. Maybe there’ll be different pressure. Maybe the readers who liked The Butterfly Assassin will hate The Hummingbird Killer; maybe they’ll think it’s better. I will keep writing regardless, just as I will keep planting things in my crappy little flowerbed, because I wrote for over ten years before I sold anything, so that’s never been the point of this.

But I want to stay. After The Hummingbird Killer, there’ll be book three. I don’t know what will come after that. I hope something will. I hope many somethings will. I’m writing some of them now, bulbs that I’m planting with hope, not knowing whether they’ll sprout and certainly not when or where they’ll flower. I’ll work out which connections matter, which roots I want to put the time and effort into putting down, and I’ll start rebuilding some of those webs that felt so constantly shattered during my Year Of Moving House.

Perhaps, like the daffodillies, I’ve been underground for a few months, only gradually beginning to poke my head above the ground. But soon, I think, I’ll be ready to flower. And part of that will be book two, and part of it will be about seeking out opportunities again, creating them where they don’t exist, talking to people and making connections and being part of something, for the sake of friendships as much as for the sake of helping my books find their readers.

(If you’re reading this, and you’re from a school or library or bookshop in the Cambridge area: I want to know you. I want you to be part of what I’m building. Get in touch, please.)

It’s spring. The flowers are coming out. The Hummingbird Killer releases in two months, and I’ll no longer be a debut. A new step in a winding journey.

You can help build the road I’m walking by pre-ordering The Hummingbird Killer (and if you fill out the pre-order campaign form, you’ll get a bonus short story, too).

All About The Hummingbird Killer

If you follow me on other social media — and I assume, at this point and given the nature of the internet these days, that most of you do — you’ll have seen that a couple of weeks ago I shared the cover and the blurb for the sequel to The Butterfly Assassin. But, just in case you didn’t, I thought I’d talk a little about it here.

(And, yes, I did mean to write this post two weeks ago, but unfortunately my health is incredibly garbage right now and I have not been very functional lately, so it’s taken me a while to get to it.)

So, book two! It’s called The Hummingbird Killer, and it comes out on May 11th, 2023 in the UK. I don’t have release dates for anywhere else; Amazon is suggesting possibly August for Australia and New Zealand, and I would imagine the French edition will come sometime in the autumn, like book one, but I have no further info on that front yet.

Here’s the cover:

The English cover of The Hummingbird Killer, which is black with a red and orange spray-painted hummingbird.

And the blurb:

Teen assassin Isabel Ryans now works for Comma, and she’s good at it: the Moth is the guild’s most notorious killer, infamous throughout the city of Espera. But Isabel still craves normality, and she won’t find it inside the guild. She moves in with a civilian flatmate, Laura, and begins living a double life, one where she gets to pretend she’s free.

But when Isabel’s day job tangles her up with an anti-guild abolitionist movement, it becomes harder to keep her two lives separate. Forced to choose between her loyalty to her friends and her loyalty to Comma, she finds herself with enemies on all sides, putting herself and Laura at risk.

Can Isabel ever truly be safe in a city ruled by killers?

Now that I’ve covered the basics, let’s get on to answering some FAQs, some of which I have actually been asked, and others which I’m anticipating somebody somewhere wanting to know the answer to.

Is it a direct sequel to The Butterfly Assassin? Do I need to have read book one first?

Yes, and probably. Around two years have passed since the first book, so Isabel’s life has moved on somewhat and we’re not directly picking up the threads of any cliffhangers. I’ve also made an effort to remind readers who certain recurring characters are, and there are quite a few characters that are brand new. But events in book one still echo through this one and are referenced frequently, and we’re building on the worldbuilding foundation laid there too. That means if you’re a forgetful reader like me, it should still be okay to read without having recently refreshed your memory with a reread of book one, but if you haven’t read book one at all, you’ll probably find that you’re missing quite a lot of vital context!

Okay, but I am super forgetful and don’t remember who anyone is. Will you do a recap?

I mean, if that would be useful to people, I’m happy to do a deeply irreverent blog post catching you all up on who the characters are and what happened to them in book one. Let me know in the comments if that’s something you’d be interested in.

Is this the end of the story?

No, this is the second book in a trilogy. It’s always been a trilogy in my head, and the ending of this book has been planned from the start. I’m very glad that we sold book three and I didn’t have to change it. That doesn’t mean this book doesn’t have its own arcs and goals and structure etc, but it does mean we’re working towards a larger resolution rather than wrapping everything up here.

Wait… does that mean there’s a cliffhanger?

That would be telling. (But yeah, kind of. Sorry.)

What ‘representation’ does this book have?

I feel faintly uncomfortable with breaking books down into the identities of their main characters, especially when those identities might not be clearly defined within canon or don’t map neatly onto the real world. But I will say that Isabel is much more firmly portrayed as asexual and aromantic in this book, and has more than one conversation about it with other characters; her flatmate is bisexual and aromantic, and her colleague is a Black trans man who also happens to be asexual and aromantic. There are also several other queer characters in the background, including two who use they/them pronouns. Race is a little complicated in the setting, but several characters are definitely not white.

Isabel is also still grappling with the psychological and physical impact of book one, and we see the ways she works around her chronic health issues on a daily basis, as well as her complete failure to do anything that might help her mental health. Gluten free and traumatised, that’s our girl.

Is there romance in this book?

Nope. It’s all about those platonic friendships, weird surrogate parent figures, terrible bosses, and revolutionary colleagues you accidentally end up helping achieve their illegal goals. That seems like more than enough drama, angst, and emotions to me without adding romance into the mix.

Will Isabel have a redemption arc in this book?

Good question! There’s an arc. Off a cliff. Away from redemption.

Real talk, Isabel gets worse in this book. But isn’t that the point of the middle book of a trilogy? This is where I break everything. Book three is where I’ll fix it. And I will fix it — I don’t want this to be a hopeless series — but prepare yourself for a big mess first.

How many people die in this book?

You know, I tried to keep count during the writing process, but things got a little hazy towards the end. I’m thinking minimum of fifty. Of whom Isabel killed probably a minimum of forty-seven. You know that part where I said she got worse? Yeah, so, about that…

Will [character name] come back?

Were they alive at the end of book one? They’re probably in this one. That’s really the only criterion I have, although of course that still excludes a fair number of characters.

Do we get to see more of Espera in this one?

Yes! That’s actually one thing I’m really excited about. Book one follows Isabel very closely, and her immediate priorities are things like “not dying”, so we don’t get to see too much of the city around her. Considering how long I spent developing highly specific details about the city that never made it to the page, I knew I wanted the chance to share more of it with you all! In this book, the camera really pans out to look more at Isabel’s role within the whole city, and we see different aspects of Espera, including its more revolutionary elements. So those reviewers who said they wanted to know more about the city/world, you’re in luck.

Do you have an aesthetic for this book?

I don’t make visual aesthetics (but think colourful street art and a lot of blood, like book 1) but I do have a playlist for it, and frankly, it’s full of bangers. Ignore the title of the playlist. That was the working title of the book and I haven’t been able to bring myself to change it yet; I will do so eventually.

Can I get an ARC?

There aren’t going to be any physical ARCs for this book (sad times) but it should be available on NetGalley at some point. That’s all I can tell you on that front, I’m afraid.

Are you doing a pre-order campaign?

YES, thank you so much for asking, hypothetical questioner. I am doing a pre-order campaign. If you pre-order the book and submit your receipts to this form, you will receive a digital short story set in the world of The Butterfly Assassin, a few years before the start of book one. (It’s about Emma, and to a lesser extent, Grace.) You can also enter into a draw to win an annotated copy of book one, where I will have gone through pointing out all the symbolism and foreshadowing. Frankly, that’s because I’ve wanted to do an annotated book for aaaaages and this is just an excuse, but indulge me, please. (That part is optional, though, so if you’ve already got more copies of The Butterfly Assassin than you could ever need, you can just go for the story!)

And yes, it’s open internationally. All the pre-order links that I’ve rounded up so far are on this page.

Why should I pre-order?

Other than that you want this exclusive short story which will not be posted anywhere else? Because pre-orders really help authors! Even if we’re not the kind of bestsellers who are shooting for thousands of first-week sales and an appearance in every bestseller chart known to man (and I can assure you I’m not), they help signal to booksellers that there’s interest in a title, so that they’ll stock it, which increases the chances that other people will buy it. Or they’ll give it that much-needed boost up the online charts, which again, gives it more visibility and helps others to discover it. Plus, it reassures your local author that people like them, and we authors are deeply insecure and need to be reassured in as many ways as possible at all times.

Pre-orders might not save lives but they definitely bring a spark of joy into the world, and why wouldn’t you want to bring a spark of joy into the world? Do it. It’s a present to your future self. Your future self will thank you (and so will I).

I think that’s everything, but if you have any further questions about the book, please drop ’em in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them. It’s now less than 2.5 months until it comes out, so it’s time to start getting excited! :)

And remember, you can always find all the information (including content warnings and buy links) about my books on the ‘Books’ page here.

Edit: I just noticed that The Butterfly Assassin is on sale for 99p on Kindle UK (affiliate link), so this is a great time to buy it if you haven’t already jumped on this particular bandwagon!