Sebastien De Castell Interview – Tyrant’s Throne
As many of you know Sebastien De Castell is the author of the acclaimed swashbuckling fantasy series, The Greatcoats. His debut novel, Traitor’s Blade, was shortlisted for both the 2014 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fantasy and the Gemmell Morningstar Award for Best Debut. The quartet’s final book, Tyrant’s Throne, is due out in April this year, with his new YA fantasy series debuting in May.
We were lucky enough to have him stop by and answer some very difficult questions about his series and what he’ll be doing in the future.
How are you?
Excellent! After a strange bicycling adventure in Cambodia in December which ended with me rushing to an emergency room in a tuk tuk (a kind of rickshaw attached to a motorbike), I’ve been gearing up for the release of three books this year: Tyrant’s Throne, which is the final book in the Greatcoats Quartet, and Spellslinger and , the first two books in a new YA fantasy series.
What inspired you to write this sort of fantasy book over one with elves and dragons?
I suppose because I don’t really have anything interesting to say about elves and dragons. With the Greatcoats, there were specific aspects of human life I wanted to write about: idealism, friendship, and questions about how you hang onto those things when the world seems increasingly corrupt and irredeemable. Swashbuckling adventure, with the mix of politics and intrigue, felt like the right place to explore those themes.
One of the first things people use to describe these books is The Three Musketeers and it’s a fair comparison what with you having a trio of honourable but falsely disgraced king’s men fighting the corrupt nobility with only their swords, wit and camaraderie to keep them alive. It’s very impressive that you’ve managed to create something so identifiable with one of the greatest ever works of literature yet wholly original and in a world of its own. How hard was this to achieve?
Unbelievably hard. I must be some kind of genius.
Seriously, though, while I love The Three Musketeers, I came to the Greatcoats from a very different path. I’d been reading about these 12th century English magistrates called the Justices Itinerant and became intrigued imagining the dangers they might have faced wandering into some town far away from the reach of the King where the local nobility could just have them killed rather than obeying their verdicts. I’d also become fascinated with the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election, in which John Kerry – a war hero regardless of where you stand on political issues – had been turned into a kind of cowardly traitor through what later became known as swiftboating. Those two sources of inspiration became intertwined in my head until I became obsessed with the question: what do you do next? What would a swashbuckling magistrate who’d given up everything for their cause do if it turned out the things they believed in had become reviled by everyone?
The other distinction is that I don’t write in the voice or style of Dumas. First of all, I don’t think I’d be very good at it, and second, I doubt it would serve the characters very well. Falcio, Kest, and Brasti are all lower-class guys who had to work incredibly hard to develop their abilities and their knowledge of the law (well, Brasti could probably use more work on that last part.) Falcio’s voice isn’t like that of most classical swashbuckling figures, nor does he observe the same details of the world around him, and that lets him be, well, Falcio, rather than my version of a Dumas character.
Was it always planned as a four book series and has the storyline progressed as you intended or as it grown organically as you write?
Right from the beginning Jo Fletcher Books asked for four books in the series, so that remained the same. The books themselves evolved differently than I’d originally imagined, primarily because of the characters. For example, Darriana was originally intended to be just a name that appeared briefly in the second book of the series, Knight’s Shadow. Instead she turned out to be someone who had a very different view than Falcio about the King he so admired and the Greatcoats themselves. Because her role changed – even though she’s theoretically a “secondary” character – the entire book changed.
Nowhere is this more pronounced for me than with Valiana. She was never meant to be crucial to the series, rather a kind of overly pampered princess who wasn’t even aware of how damaging she was to the world around her. Then when I was writing the scene in Traitor’s Blade where Falcio is suddenly forced to dance with her in the Ducal Palace of Rijou, I found his reaction – dismissive, cold, and rather mean-spirited – suddenly made me want to write her side of things. So while it’s all told from Falcio’s viewpoint, what Valiana says to him during that dance completely changes her role – not just in the book, but in the entire series. If you look at her arc through each of the four books, you could almost see her as the true hero of the series (don’t tell Brasti that, of course.)
Why is the story ready to stop now?
First and foremost because the questions that launched the story have now been answered. I’m not talking about plot here, but the broader thematic question of what do you do when your ideals no longer seem to apply to the world you live in? Each book of the series contrasts the romantic idealism that led to the forming of the Greatcoats with a kind of intrinsic opposing force: cynicism in Traitor’s Blade, pragmatism in Knight’s Shadow, faith in Saint’s Blood. With the fourth book, Tyrant’s Throne, Falcio is forced for the first time to choose between his idealistic view of the law and his own sense of duty to the King. By the end of that book, Falcio has found his answer, and I think the reader has as well.
Have you found it tough to keep the three main characters alive all this time?
My esteemed editor, Jo Fletcher, has a thing about killing off characters: you can’t use death simply for dramatic effect. She’s right, too, because the best deaths are the ones that in some way change the way we see the story. For every important character who’s died in the series, Jo and I talked about why their death was important, what it said about the themes in the book, and how it would change the other characters. So while Falcio, Kest, and Brasti have all experienced some form of psychological, emotional, or spiritual death in the books, there’s never been a point where I thought killing one of them off would make the story as powerful as forcing them to deal with the consequences of what had happened to them.
Reflecting back on the first three books is there anything you wished you had or had not done?
No, that’s a rabbit hole I never want to go down. You write the book that represents who you are and what you have to say at the time, then you need to trust that your ability and integrity gave purpose even to your mistakes. I might be a better writer in terms of craft or artistry today than I was a few years ago, but I’m willing to bet that if I went back in time and rewrote Traitor’s Blade, I’d end up ruining some of the parts people most enjoy. That’s why I always tell newer writers not to doubt themselves too much – to remember that for every weakness they have in some aspect of craft, there’s also a kind of magic that comes from those raw, fundamental narrative impulses inside the person they are right now.
The Vadren Graff moments at the very end of Knight’s Shadow just killed me. Then you left us with the letter from Tommer. What inspired these and how did you know that some readers would really connect with these characters and appreciate knowing a bit more about them?
It began simply as a way to encourage people to read the acknowledgments. The Greatcoats books are heavily inspired and improved by the people around me and if readers enjoyed the book, I want them to know who helped bring it to them. But then I discovered this other phenomenon that I’d never realized before: some emotional moments work better outside the narrative structure of the book.
Vadren Graff’s origins would have been nothing more than lazy exposition if I’d stuck them in a scene inside Knight’s Shadow, but somehow outside – when you think the book is over – those short paragraphs take on a lot of emotional heft. The same is true of Tommer’s letter: inside the main narrative it would have felt contrived and melodramatic. Outside, it somehow becomes its own story, and one I wanted readers to experience fully.
How much worse can things get for Falcio?
You’re about to find out because the final book in the series will, without a doubt, see him at his lowest point. While there’s plenty of swashbuckling and banter, Tyrant’s Throne is the book where Falcio comes face-to-face with the dark side of his commitment to bring about his King’s dream no matter the cost.
What does Brasti’s revelation that he sees Falcio is the very personification of valour mean for his ability to insult him?
I don’t think that revelation was as big a surprise for Brasti as it was for Falcio. Earlier in the series, Brasti always told himself that he could be just as clever and daring as Falcio if he wanted to, but the events in Gargniol in Knight’s Shadow changed that for him and for the first time he was forced to come to grips with the differences between them. That’s why, though he still picks on Falcio, he’s also the first person to go after anyone else who insults him. As far as Brasti’s concerned, only he and Kest have the right to beat on the First Cantor.
Question from Mark Lawrence – What animal are the bones from that form the armour of the greatcoat?
A question from Mark Lawrence? Okay, but under the ancient, unwritten accords of author Q&A’s, this means Mark is now duty-bound to send me a copy of Red Sister. You’re all my witnesses.
There was a scene intended for book two in which we’d see the actual bones the Tailor uses to construct the inner plates of the coat. They come from two separate sources: a large northern bird whose skeleton is extremely light but exceptionally durable and flexible, and a type of sea mammal that looks a bit like a very small whale whose ribs and scapulae need to be carefully selected to fit the coat and the person wearing it. This is one of the reasons why the greatcoats are so expensive, and why you’d have a tough time outfitting an army or even contingent of city guards with them.
I never put the scene in the book because it wasn’t integral to the dramatic progression of the story, which means the origins of the bone plates in the greatcoats had to remain a deeply-kept secret. Until now.
Gemmell Awards. You’ve been nominated a few times now. What did that first nomination for Traitor’s Blade mean in terms of advancing your opportunities and career and what would a win do for you now?
I think fantasy awards are primarily focused around particular communities of readers, so being nominated serves to bring your work to the attention of that particular community. The Hugo’s are part of Worldcon, which is a very close-knit community of readers (who were all remarkably kind to me despite the odd circumstances of my nomination), whereas the Gemmell Awards are, I think, more focused on fans of the author himself and of those his work inspired. So being nominated for the Gemmell Morningstar Award meant that fans of this work took a second look at Traitor’s Blade, and getting that second look can be the difference between a book finding its audience versus getting lost in the shuffle. So, naturally, I’m exceedingly grateful for that. I’d be even more gratified if Saint’s Blood made the shortlist, though I’ll confess I really want one of those axes that you get if you win…
Why should readers who have never picked up one your books start the series now?
Hmm…I make it a rule never to tell readers what they should do or what books they should read. I suppose what I’d say is that if you like the idea of swashbuckling adventure – everything from The Three Musketeers to Errol Flynn to The Princess Bride, or if you feel a connection to the themes of friendship and idealism, then you might enjoy the Greatcoats. This also happens to be the perfect time to start the series because the final book comes out in April 2017, so you’ll get to read the whole quartet without having to wait for the next book.
What’s next for The Greatcoats and Sebastien De Castell?
With Tyrant’s Throne concluding the Greatcoats Quartet, it’s time for the swashbuckling trio of Falcio, Kest, and Brasti to get a well-deserved break. This isn’t to say there won’t be a new Greatcoats series coming out, only that . . . no, if I told you, I’d have to teach you the first rule of the sword.
Spellslinger, the first book in my YA fantasy series launches in May 2017. Because that series releases two books a year, and because there are so many foreign publishers who need to translate it into their own languages, they need the manuscripts on time, which means I need to devote a lot of this year to the next two books.
Finally, I’m determined to find a month or so to write the next draft of my weird mystery novel about a former teen detective who returns to her home town and is forced to confront the truth of her past and the enigmatic figure intent on destroying it.
Somewhere in there I’ll get some sleep, too.
As huge fans of Sebastien’s we can’t thank him enough for taking the time to answer some of our questions. Keep a look out for our review of Tyrant’s Throne coming out on the 20th of April. You can learn more about his two series on his website or you can follow him on Twitter.