Innocent by day, killer by night: The Butterfly Assassin is a dark, twisting thriller about a teen assassin’s attempt to live a normal life.
Trained and traumatised by a secret assassin programme for minors, Isabel Ryans wants nothing more than to be a normal civilian. After running away from home, she has a new name, a new life and a new friend, Emma, and for the first time in Isabel’s life, things are looking up.
But old habits die hard, and it’s not long until she blows her cover, drawing the attention of the guilds – the two rival organisations who control the city of Espera. An unaffiliated killer like Isabel is either a potential asset . . . or a threat to be eliminated.
We had the honour of chatting with Finn about their debut novel. Buckle up because we were very excited about The Butterfly Assassin and asked them many questions.
How did you come up with the layout of the map?
My priority was figuring out where all the boroughs are located – the exact details of individual places within them weren’t as important, though I tried to approximate them so I could keep track of directions. Although Espera is fictional, it’s in a specific place in Yorkshire, and the boroughs are named after placenames in the area. I printed off a Google map of the area and drew over the top of it to help me determine the borough boundaries: some of them are based on existing roads, some of them I just put where they felt right. On an urban planning level, I know there are a bunch of things about the city that probably make no sense; I have explanations for some of its idiosyncrasies, but not others, so I just have to hope no city planners are scrutinising it too hard!
Of course, credit is due to the designer at S&S who actually made my scrappy, hand-drawn map look pretty.
When did you first learn about the language, Esperanto? How much of it do you know by heart?
I can’t pin down where I first came across it, but I know I was aware of it around the time I read Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines quartet, when I was ten. The aviators in that speak “Airsperanto”, which is clearly a reference; I don’t remember if I got the joke by myself, or if it had to be explained to me, but certainly by the time I finished up A Darkling Plain I knew what it was referencing. I became more interested in the language in my teens, which is how it ended up in The Butterfly Assassin. I’m not a particularly fluent or accomplished speaker – I’ve been working through the Duolingo course, and I also own an incredibly niche textbook, which is Esperanto taught through Irish. No, I’m not fluent in Irish either, I just like to make life hard for myself. But I’ve not got very far. My main aim is to become confident enough to translate lines of dialogue for book two all by myself, instead of relying on my Esperanto consultant all the time (because he’s probably getting sick of me!). We’re not there yet, though.
What is the importance of butterflies to you?
I like them, and I think they’re pretty, but I’m definitely no entomologist. The butterfly imagery in the book came about by accident. Isabel’s guild has always been called Comma – before the book even existed, that was one of the few things I knew about her – but I didn’t know at the time that that was a type of butterfly. A long-term reader of my blog alerted me to that, when I was beginning to play around with ideas for this book. Around the same time, I was learning a large amount of French vocab very quickly ahead of an exam, and came across the term papillon de nuit, moth, or literally, ‘butterfly of night’. I thought that sounded extremely badass – “like an assassin’s nickname”, I said – and this helped bring together the disparate ideas I’d been playing with, becoming a fundamental part of the story. I’ve learned a fair amount about butterflies along the way and I love to photograph them when I get the chance, but my interest is primarily aesthetic, not scientific.
The tone of the book is very solemn and we see Isabel struggling quite often, with both physical and mental pain. However, that does not take away Isabel’s strength as a character. Why did you decide on this tone and how did you find the right balance?
The Butterfly Assassin was born of a difficult period in my life, when I struggled a great deal with mental and physical health problems. I didn’t set out to write about those experiences, but inevitably they ended up contributing to the tone: it became a book about being seventeen, in a lot of pain, and feeling like you have no control over your body and your life. And about not being a saintly Pollyanna type, but being furious and impatient and despairing. Isabel lashes out at others, whereas I internalised a lot of my angst – the key difference between us – but I guess I just wanted to write about somebody who is going through a lot of awful stuff and really isn’t dealing well with it. Somebody who is scared and angry and makes all the wrong decisions.
I don’t think Isabel is a role model: she makes very bad choices, she’s capable of great violence and cruelty, and there are few limits to what she’ll do to survive. But that’s sort of the point. She doesn’t have to be a good person to deserve better than what she’s experiencing. She’s a mess, who has done awful things, and still, I hope, readers will root for her to pull through and escape this cycle she’s trapped in. Hope and compassion are so important to me: compassion, because Isabel is human and deserves second chances and deserves safety, and hope, because there is too much despair in the world already.
Many of the characters in The Butterfly Assassin are very lovely, and they give Isabel a much needed support system. Are they inspired by anyone from your personal experiences?
Not particularly. I try not to write people I know in real life into books, because I have a bad habit of killing my characters, or at least making them deeply unhappy. I don’t want people I care about recognising themselves in somebody who comes to a tragic end! Mostly, these characters are wish fulfilment, people I wished I’d had – especially Daragh. As a teenager, I found that a lot of doctors didn’t take my health problems seriously, dismissing them rather than investigating issues, sometimes misdiagnosing me. Daragh gives up his time and energy to help, for no personal gain, because he sees that Isabel needs somebody who believes her. Although I’ve subsequently had much better medical care, I still feel like I’m looking for my Daragh: somebody who is so determined to help, they’ll try everything to get to the root of the problem, rather than picking the easiest answer and offering me a few pamphlets on how I might manage things alone.
I really love that this story is kept to be asexual. How did you come to this decision?
From the very beginning I knew I wanted this to be a book that was “all murder, no sex”. When I was a teenager, it felt like all the upper YA books were extremely heavy on the romance, and as somebody who wasn’t interested in that, I felt alienated from them – but if I wanted stories about friendship, I’d only find it in books aimed at much younger readers. I wanted a book that was ‘mature’ and dark, but still focused on friendship as the most central relationship. It’s not that I don’t think romance has its place in books (queer historical romance novels got me through the pandemic), but I also want more stories without it, and where its absence isn’t lamented by anybody.
Following up on all that, what do you think readers should learn from Isabel the most?
Murder will not solve your problems. It will just give you new problems.
But also, I think, that you have the capacity to be so much more than the worst version of yourself – even if it feels like that’s the only version of you the world is giving you the opportunity to show. We all have goodness in us, and it’s our responsibility to nurture that, and let it grow. To light another candle, as Emma puts it. (Maybe we’re learning that from Emma, more than from Isabel!)
Aside from The Butterfly Assassin, you have contributed a lot in the academic world. How different is it from writing this novel and when will we see you pen medieval Irish retellings in YA novels?
Quite different, I guess. I have an MA in Early and Medieval Irish and my specialism is the Ulster Cycle – stories set in the distant past, written by medieval and early modern authors, are quite a far cry from my near-future thriller! But both contain murder and really angry seventeen-year-olds, so I guess they have something in common, though I’m not sure Isabel and Cú Chulainn are particularly similar. The biggest difference is that I find fiction writing much, much easier than academic writing, but I do like to play them off each other to use different parts of my brain. When I’m stressed about publishing, I go translate some early modern Irish for a while, because it’s impossible to do that and think about Goodreads reviews at the same time.
I actually have two medieval-inspired WIPs on the go – one is a retelling of a medieval Irish story, the other of a medieval French poem. They’re both adult rather than YA, though, and I also have an adult fantasy series that draws heavily on medieval Irish literature, which I work on whenever I don’t have another project on the go. I have a couple of more medieval-leaning YA concepts in mind, but they mostly haven’t progressed beyond the ‘concept’ stage. Maybe one day, though juggling the demands of academic research and good fiction can be challenging. Sometimes my need to make things ‘accurate’ is incompatible with my need to tell a good story, and it can be hard, when you’re super invested on an academic level, to let the details slip. But we’ll definitely get there one day.
Bonus question: Whenever you read a book with a map inside, do you first examine the map in detail before reading the book or do you do that every time a place is mentioned within the book?
I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this, but honestly, I don’t really do either. I’ll glance at a map, immediately forget everything important, and coast through the book based purely on vibes. I read a lot of ebooks, which discourages me from flipping back to check locations – although I sometimes do if I’m really confused. But mostly, I’m not a detail-oriented reader, so I’ll trust the writer to get me where I need to go. If their geography doesn’t add up, I’m not going to be the one who notices; I have absolutely no spatial awareness or sense of direction. I am fully capable of getting lost in a straight line.
Grab your copy of The Butterfly Assassin here.