Moral Ambiguity and Straight-Up Murder

Moral Ambiguity and Straight-Up Murder

I’ve met a few authors now, but the first one I ever met, way back in 2005, was Caroline Lawrence, author of the Roman Mysteries series. I was a big fan of these books — my brother used to borrow them from his secondary school library on my behalf while I was still in primary school — and she was doing an event at a local library, so my mum took me along. I only owned a few of the books, since I’d read them from the library, but I’d never been to an author event before and I didn’t realise you could bring books to get signed.

When I realised, of course, I was devastated, because I didn’t have any with me. I tried to convince my mum to let me buy The Assassins of Rome, because it was my favourite. I didn’t yet own it, and then I’d be able to get it signed — but she refused (on the basis that I’d already read it, I think), and I left without a signed book.

A couple of years ago, a conversation on Twitter led to Caroline Lawrence posting me a signed first edition of The Assassins of Rome. I don’t remember how this originally came about, but it was a lovely thing for her to do, and my childhood self would be delighted to know that’s how that story ended.

I mention this because it seems strangely appropriate that The Assassins of Rome was my favourite of the series, because thirteen years down the line I still have a soft spot for books and films featuring assassins. (Though if I recall correctly, I also liked that one because Jonathan — who was my favourite — had a really rough time of it in that book, and apparently I like my fictional faves to suffer. That hasn’t changed either.)

I’m not sure why I’m so interested in assassin stories; it seems ironic, since I’m opposed to the death penalty. But I do like them, and I can’t deny that. I’m currently working on a fifth draft of Butterfly of Night, a novel about a teenage assassin and her poor life choices. I finished redrafting it last week, but now I’m going over it again for style and continuity after making some major plot changes.

Between reaching the last page and starting again at the first, though, I decided to rest my brain, and to check out the assassin market. So, I read Nevernight and Godsgrave by Jay Kristoff. I rewatched Mr & Mrs Smith — I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen that, but it’s a classic. I read a 237k fan fic which heavily featured Natasha Romanoff and Bucky Barnes (and was, for the record, fantastic), just to get that brainwashed assassin angst.

I make no secret about liking stabby books, and I’ve deliberately sought out those featuring contract killers and assassins of all kinds, largely because I want to know what the competition is. It’s hard to say which came first — working on Isabel’s story, or reading about murderers — but I definitely made more of a conscious effort to find those books once I was thinking about how to pitch this one and what else was out there.

Truth be told, there aren’t that many books similar to BoN, because it’s a story featuring a teenage assassin which isn’t fantasy, and that seems a lot rarer than the magical variety. Books like it exist, but I’ve still struggled to find accurate comparative titles.

(Cait @ PaperFury has pitched it as ‘This Savage Song meets Bourne’, which seems accurate enough, although I’ve only seen one of the Bourne films and it was a long time ago.)

The question I end up asking myself is why I’m so interested in assassin stories.

On the one hand, yes, I find murder much more interesting than sex when it comes to reading, but that doesn’t explain it, because the pervasive idea of sexy assassins mean the two often go hand in hand. Nevernight plays on that in the very first chapter. So it can’t be that I’m trying to avoid romance subplots and the like.

And sure, I love some moral ambiguity to spice up a story, but once you’ve got characters straight-up murdering people, I think you’ve gone way past ambiguous. So that doesn’t explain it either.

I do think it’s kind of about that moral element, though. I’ve commented in the past on the fact that several of my books/characters are actually all explorations of the same question: is there any such thing as unforgivable? At what point does redemption stop being on the cards? And for me as a writer, how bad can a character be without becoming unsympathetic?

Theoretically, I think nobody is beyond redemption. In practice, it’s harder than that. In my writing, I test the boundary. Most readers will forgive a murder or two, though they’d rarely feel the same in the real world, but how far can you push? How bad can you go? It’s always fascinating to see people’s personal charts of morality, scales of badness. Is it a certain number of people that have to die before it stops being okay, or a type of people? Is it when they’re children? What about if they’re fighting back, does that make it better?

These are questions I play around with in my writing because I’m fascinated by antiheroes and the lengths to which people will go to construe their actions as heroic. But Isabel, the protagonist of Butterfly of Night, struggles with these questions in a different way. Other assassins she encounters have qualms about killing minors, but she doesn’t see how it’s any different from killing an adult. (I mean, Isabel is also more or less completely amoral, so… there’s that.)

One thing I’ve discovered with my writing is that people with sympathise with some truly terrible people if (a) other people in the book are worse and (b) their life sucks enough. Isabel is surrounded by complete sadists and her life is a MESS, so I can get away with letting her do some pretty bad things. Another tactic I take is to introduce a character partway through their redemption arc, let the reader get attached, and then reveal the true horror of what they actually did once they’re too invested to hate them. That one seems to work too. *evil grin*

This is saved on my computer as ‘moth trilogy goals’

Maybe the reason I continue to be fascinated by assassin stories is because they push those boundaries. How far is too far, how bad is too bad, when does antihero slip into villain? You’ve heard the cliché that every villain is the hero of their own story, but sometimes the most fascinating characters are the ones who cast themselves as a villain, either willingly or unwillingly. The ones who know what they’re doing is bad but do it anyway, either because they want to or because somebody has to and it might as well be them.

Or maybe I’m just an innately violent person who needs therapy. It’s hard to tell sometimes.

Got any favourite assassin stories that you think I might not have read? Let me know — and bonus points if they don’t contain sex!


My book blog is now up and running again, with reviews scheduled throughout August. I kick-started it this morning with four mini-reviews (two of which are books about assassins, appropriately enough). If you’re not already following, now’s a great time — the start of a new book blogging era!


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8 thoughts on “Moral Ambiguity and Straight-Up Murder

  1. “Most readers will forgive a murder or two” — and then there’s me over here saying IT’S OK ISABEL YOU’RE DAMAGED YOU’RE JUST WORKING THROUGH SOME STUFF. (We can all hear Daragh sighing loudly in the background.)

    I actually am thinking of writing a post on why I write dark books because I keep getting asked 😂 I think everyone expected rainbows and sprinkles from me due to my comedic tweets/instagram rainbow photos? But like no I’m here with DARKNESS. But I think it’s interesting to explore and I sometimes feel when we’re really opposed to something…we write about it? Like you said you’re opposed to the death penalty = but you write about executioners. I’m hugely opposed to physical violence = but I write about it all the time. I think it’s a way of exploring what we think/feel on matters too, right? And also we probably all need therapy. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Figures. Isabel needs therapy fyi. Instead of deflecting Daragh and just complaining about her cardboard toast (ICONIC GLUTEN FREE MOOD FOREVER).

    1. Yeah, interesting idea about writing what we’re opposed to. I think the other thing I often do is write the things I’m afraid of. The Death & Fairies series embodies one of my greatest fears, which is the idea of outliving the people you love. On the one hand, Irial escapes one of my fears (dying young) because he’s literally immortal; on the other hand, escaping that means watching everyone he cares about die, and I am just as scared of that. So I think that’s definitely an angle I take. I don’t know whether that plays into my morality-bending (am I scared of being bad? Maybe…) but it definitely shapes some of my writing.

  2. I also find moral ambiguity very interesting…but it is so sos easy to screw it up. I think I liked the character of AIDAN in Illuminae a lot, because the authors fundamentally used that to challenged the idea that AI is able to be rational, and how maybe what human beings want isn’t rationality unless it benefits them. It’s really complicated though. I also like the characters of Clariel and Mogget in Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom books!

    1. ALSO, I have such distinct memories of the roman mysteries too! I think I used the Vesuvius one as my *only* source for a social studies assignment when I was 12 because it seemed accurate lolol

    2. I haven’t read Illuminae, but that sounds like an interesting approach. Rationality v emotions definitely ties into issues of morality a lot, because frankly, humans are emotional creatures and make a lot of decisions based on ~feelings~

    1. Haha, sure! It’s this: https://archiveofourown.org/works/6329503 I wasn’t kidding when I said it was 237k long. There’s a prequel fic (WW2-era) that’s a lot shippier / more explicit, but this one is mostly not like that at all. You don’t need to have read the first one for this to make sense, although it’s not super long, and does explain a couple of references.

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