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Hello dear reader or listener! Our fearless leader Beth has once again been incredible and given me the opportunity to interview one of my all-time favorite authors and modern bard, Sebastien De Castell! Most known for his Greatcoats (one of the very first series I ever reviewed!) and Spellslinger series, he’s also the author of The Malevolent Seven and The Argosi series, and, as of December 2023, he began his new series Court of Shadows, with its prelude Crucible of Chaos.

With his latest novel, Play of Shadows, having just come out in late March, and this year being his tenth as a published author, what better time to ask to pick his brain? De Castell cordially obliged us and I got to gather all of my rambling fangirling thoughts into a semblance of a respectable interview!

So, without further ado, please enjoy some of his bardly wisdom!

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Let’s start with two-fold congratulations, first on your latest novel, Play of Shadows, recently coming out, and second, on ten years as a published author this past February! I can only imagine how satisfying that must be for you, especially as you’ve just published your 17th novel, so what is going through your head?
I just counted them all and technically Play of Shadows is my sixteenth novel (Tales of the Greatcoats, Vol. 1 is a collection of short stories). Nonetheless, sixteen is a lot more books than I ever imagined I’d get to see published when I started out ten years ago. Honestly, this has been a wonderful time for me – the culmination of a lifelong dream achieved through the support of my fabulous agents, editors and, most of all, amazing readers. If it weren’t for all those Greatcoats, Argosi (and now a growing number of Wonderists) spreading the word about my books, I would never have made it this far.

You’ve said you don’t have a set writing method or plan, so each book is a different beast for you, but now that you’ve come up on ten years of being an author, how do you feel your work has developed/grown in all that time?
That’s a great question, though I always bridle at the notion that writers necessarily improve or produce ‘more mature’ work over time. Most of us don’t; we simply change as human beings and so do our stories. Would I write my debut novel, Traitor’s Blade, the exact same way today as I did all those years ago? Of course not. I’d doubtless tweak the prose here and there, perhaps re-structure events and avoid choices that some reviewers might complain about. But then it would be a different book. Traitor’s Blade as it appeared ten years ago was the best version I could write of the story I most wanted to tell. Its flaws are my flaws, its best moments are those inspired by who I was at the time. A more refined version of the book might appeal to me today, but might not have impacted readers as strongly as the original.

Looking at it another way, imagine if we applied the notion of developing and growing to poets: that an older, more experienced poet would necessarily compose a better love sonnet than a younger one. Even saying it out loud sounds preposterous because we know that there are all different kinds of love, and some of them are expressed most eloquently without the use of technique or guile. We often mock teenagers for being too emotional or ‘driven by hormones’, but some of the finest poetry and pop music of all time came out of those hormones – not because it was technically sublime, but because it was raw and honest.

I say all this because newer writers sometimes put off the story they most want to write until they’ve become more sophisticated at the craft. But if you wait too long, you risk no longer being the person meant to tell that story. One reason why I never try to ‘write to market’ or jump into some hot publishing niche is that I’m confident I’d be terrible at doing so; whichever book I’m currently writing is the one that represents who I am at this moment – as a novelist and as a human being.

Publishing the start of this latest book series was a small Odyssey over the last few years, with dates and book order being moved around a lot, so how are you feeling now that the Court of Shadows is finally making its way into the hands of readers?
Mostly, I’m just relieved that readers are taking to Play of Shadows so enthusiastically. I wasn’t sure whether a swashbuckling fantasy featuring a bunch of misfit actors trying to uncover a hundred year old conspiracy by conjuring up those events on stage would be received. Thank goodness fantasy readers are such an eclectic bunch!

That we are and such a premise would very hard to resist for anyone!
From what you’ve said so far about the Court of Shadows as a whole, it will be a series of interconnected standalones, each bringing a piece of a wider puzzle to light, in order to somewhat reflect the fact that not one person or small group of people can see the whole picture of big events, which I find really intriguing. How did that come about? Did you just want to write something slightly different after two completed series, or was it something else?
I have a tremendous sympathy for historical fiction writers because they often have to contort the details surrounding historical events into knots in order to have their main characters always be in the right time and the right place for the story to make sense. Writing fantasy gives us more leeway because there’s no historical record to contradict our version of events, but most of the time, one person isn’t at the centre of so many massive incidents. No one gets to witness the beginning, middle and end of a war or revolution. Moreover, it’s probably never happened that one nation decided to attack another on a single front. Instead, they destabilize their enemies militarily, economically and psychologically through multiple offensives, and no one sees it all coming at once.

With the Court of Shadows series, I wanted the reader to experience both the fast-paced, swashbuckling adventure that defined the Greatcoats novels, but also the unease of a conspiracy – and an enemy – too big for any one person to perceive. Events unfold through the first books of the series simultaneously, so each book reveals one facet of the threat even as it introduces us to new heroes. Doing it this way means the reader is always getting a complete story rather than having to wait a year to find out what happens next, while still allowing for a climactic finale that I can’t wait to write!

You mentioned how your first draft of Play of Shadows was written as a theatre play because, even though the story is full of action, the themes get fought out in and are driven by the dialogue and aforementioned banter. To me, two of the main themes I found here but also in your other books, have been questions on legacy (leaving, preserving, or even revising one) as well as expectations (avoiding or rising to meet them) and, for both those themes, how they can be a burden or tension point for the protagonists. Is this a key way for you to ground your characters and make sure they connect with the reader? Because to an extent we can all relate to those kinds of tension and emotion?
Grounding characters in ways that readers can connect to them is one of the great challenges of writing fiction. Many of the attributes that critics say readers want from characters such as having realistic flaws and not being too heroic end up turning readers off. Often, my first pass at a main character will have them being too extreme in that direction. For example, Estevar Borros (the hero of Crucible) was actually more arrogant in the first draft of Crucible (if you can believe that!) and Damelas even less heroic. What I search for as I write and revise aren’t flaws anymore but contradictions. Yes, Estevar is arrogant, but he’s also self-aware of his arrogance and what it costs him. True, Damelas likes to run from a fight, but that doesn’t stop him from putting himself between danger and the people he cares about. For me, those kinds of contradictions are what make both fictional characters and real human beings so endlessly fascinating!

Which leads me to another thing I wanted to talk about specifically, and that is Damelas’ dynamic with Beretto and with his grandparents respectively. There are parallels and differences that exist in how these characters each place expectations on Damelas and push him to be the man they know he is, but can we say that while in relation to his grandparents whose expectations weigh him down for a long time, Beretto’s in some way encourage him more? There is a nuance there about the importance of how you try to push someone to reach their potential even if you mean well, and also accepting that they are their own person.
Ah, Beretto! I adore writing him because he’s someone who’s been told all his life that he’s too big, too stupid, too talentless to be the things he dreams of being. And yet, he transmutes this hurt into a determination to hold others up on his shoulders. For anyone else, he’d be the perfect motivator: supportive, trusting and full of faith in what you could accomplish. For Damelas, however, who’s lived his entire life in the shadow of his grandparents’ accomplishments and expectations, that only makes him more conscious of his own failings. The relationship between the two of them is always fraught by the fact that Damelas has never known a truer friend than Beretto, and yet the big man’s faith in him is almost more than he can bear. Meanwhile, Damelas looks up to Beretto so much that he often fails to notice when his friend needs a kind word of support. Those moments can be hard to write, because, like the reader, I always want them to be united as brothers-in-arms against the world, but it’s that tension that makes the growth of the friendship so satisfying to me.

Those moments were definitely hard to read for my feelings so I’d say mission accomplished! We must protect Beretto at all costs.

Moreover, something that deeply resonated with me and doubtlessly with many other readers, was a moment later in the book when Damelas and his grandfather finally talk about his complicated feelings towards his grandmother. More importantly about the fact that even understanding her own feelings/beliefs, as explained by her husband, things are still not easily resolved for Damelas. I was hoping you’d tell us a little more about what went into that whole dynamic and tension to and fro, because even with a short time you rendered a lot of nuance there.
You’re absolutely right, which is why I toiled for several drafts over the question of when to bring Paedar into the story. On the one hand, it’s rare for me to wait so long to have someone so important to my main character to make an appearance, but on the other, I really needed Damelas to be the one telling us about his childhood and the burden of his grandparents’ expectations for as long as possible. Had I introduced Paedar earlier, he would’ve shown us where Damelas is mistaken, and that would’ve broken the progression I wanted the reader to experience. More than any other character in the story, Paedar is the one who sees events and people as they truly are. He knows who Damelas really is under all that inner conflict and insecurity. He senses instantly how Shariza really feels about his grandson. Heck, he even gets a pretty good read on Duke Monsegino within minutes of meeting him.

In a very real sense, Play of Shadows is a book not just full of swashbuckling but about swashbuckling: whether that sense of reckless, romantic idealism has any place in an otherwise cynical world. Paedar Chademantaigne, the King’s Courtesy, represents both the awareness of how antiquated such swashbuckling idealism can be along with the determination to hang onto it anyway because, after all, we can all use a little more romance in our lives!

I’m definitely with you there!

Also, part of the fun for me when reading series set in the same world is seeing how much an author will pepper in from the other works so that it’s still in a way all connected but each series has its own identity. With Court of Shadows, I was very interested in seeing how that wider world, and the other characters in it, perceive those previous protagonists some time after their saga. What legends and tales will start to spread and so on. How did you go about deciding how much of the original teratology to mention and were there times when you felt it might either encumber or facilitate the new story you were trying to tell?
I try as much as possible to write the world as an extension of the character. In other words, even if both Estevar and Damelas live in the same Tristia as Falcio (of the Greatcoats Quartet) does, I want them to feel different. You and I might both visit Istanbul, see the same sights and talk to the same people, and yet describe the city in completely different ways. That’s because we experience them differently. This is made especially pronounced in Play of Shadows which is set in the Duchy of Pertine – a place Falcio refers to as little more than a cesspool of cowardice and mediocrity yet Damelas tells us is full of culture and dignity.

The same is true of other characters. Estevar, despite being a Greatcoat, refers to Falcio val Mond as ‘the execrable former First Cantor of the Greatcoats’ (a designation I hope readers of the first series will disagree with!)

Ultimately, I bring in other characters or details from the first quartet only when they feel like things that would be meaningful to the characters in the current book, and in this way I hope to avoid extraneous detail that would otherwise be unnecessary to the story. The only exception, of course, is in the last two chapters in which I felt the need to bring back a certain red-bearded varlet because he felt like the perfect person to both irritate Damelas and yet make him (and the reader) see how the Knights of the Curtain have transformed from a misfit, squabbling bunch of actors to . . . well, readers will have to pick up Play of Shadows to find out.

Oh yes, I spent those last two chapters grinning throuhgout. So, speaking of irritating others, humour and banter in your books is never without a purpose and in a recent interview you highlighted that – “Humour as defiance and banter as a shared language”. I love that for all the deeper reasons but also wanted to ask, how much fun do you have coming up with progressively more and more creative and devasting insults? And have you ever had any coming out in the moment you’re writing that you went back to edit later and thought ‘hmm, maybe too far’?
Crucible of Chaos and Play of Shadows both allowed for me to play with insults in different ways. Estevar can be such a pompous arse at times and thus the insults and challenges he delivers to those who get in his way can become rather . . . extravagant. With Play of Shadows, we’re dealing with theatre actors, so naturally, the various jibes and taunts take on a loquacious, almost Shakespearean style. Both are fun to write, though Estevar’s in Crucible of Chaos tend to come in more serious moments and therefore can’t be quite as over-the-top as some of Abastrini’s in Play of Shadows.

As to going too far, I’ve never found myself thinking an insult within a story went too far; only that I have to remind myself that sometimes less is more. I can get a bit expansive in the banter department at times.

We do love the banter though! You’ve also said that Estevar is your favourite new Greatcoat to write, can you tell us how come? Aside for being the supernatural detective extraordinaire that he is, and for having Imperious the mule as his companion, that is.
What I love about writing Estevar is that he’s significantly smarter than I am, which means I never know how he’s going to solve the next puzzle. There’s something about his personality that makes him first tell us he’s figured it out and then reveal it to us, which means I end up writing him already confident he knows what’s going on and then having to guess at what the hell he’s talking about. I imagine that in real life Estevar would consider me something of a slow-witted dolt.

What also made Crucible compelling to me was how, in this book, you employed from the get-go, a trope that is usually present in stories some time after the protagonist is introduced and shown at the peak of their abilities; that is showing them stripped of all their advantages. In this case, Estevar’s greatcoat with all its knick-knacks, and his physical health given he goes into this investigation mortally wounded. What made you want to introduce Estevar to the readers this way, with this subverted character arc of sorts?
I gave Estevar the wound from his recent duel as a constant reminder throughout the story that his arrogance is often his undoing. Don’t get me wrong – Estevar’s arrogance is part of what makes him a delight to write. But in a novel about monks questioning which gods they should or shouldn’t worship, I wanted my main character to be questioning his own faith. In Estevar’s case, that faith is in the law and himself.
The loss of his greatcoat early on was important to me not as a way to make life harder for Estevar but simply as a price for saving Imperious. As much fun as that peculiar relationship can be, I wanted it to be genuine. Estevar doesn’t view Imperious as a useful beast of burden, but as a friend or – as Estevar himself might put it – a comrade.

You also play on juxtapositions very well, it’s safe to say, and one thing I’ve seen quite a few times in your writing overall is the presence of a seemingly stalwart and strong or a larger than life figure, that is paired with a much smaller and delicate one in a scene. Be it literally or metaphorically. I can think of several examples, for instance Beretto and Damelas in more than a few moments of Play, or Rhyleis and old Mags. Even Cade and Corrigan from The Malevolent Seven. But I want to focus on that very specific moment between Estevar and Caeda in Crucible, where, in the face of her momentary fraught fragility, it becomes imperative for him to keep the act going. Because it brings out the true vulnerability of all parties, doesn’t it? It’s like trying to hold onto a cracked porcelain cup that you already know or fear will fall apart the moment you ease on the pressure.
For me, it’s about compassion. There’s something wonderful, almost miraculous, about genuine compassion. Often we can be empathetic with those whom we share a common set of traits, yet be comfortable treating those who don’t share our backgrounds or views with disgust and even cruelty. Compassion, though – the kind of compassion that Ferius Parfax displays and turns almost into a kind preternatural talent in the Spellslinger and Argosi books – that’s real magic.

William Goldman, the legendary screenwriter of The Princess Bride and Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid used to say that what got to him most in a book or movie was something he called “stupid courage” – a kind of reckless bravery in the face of certain doom. For me, it’s improbable compassion: a moment when someone is kind when we’d otherwise expect them to be dismissive.

In the moment to which I think you’re referring between Estevar and Caeda, he’s already figured out who she is and what’s really happened, and yet, he knows that even if she knows deep down, too, she’s not ready to accept it. The porcelain cup – to use your analogy – is cracked, but not yet broken, and he wants to give it a chance to hold together – to be a cup and not a shattered, forgotten object – a little longer.
An example of this that is even more potent for me is the moment you mention between Rhyleis and Old Mags in Play of Shadows: not because of how Rhyleis gives Mags a chance to be a musician, but because of how moments later, when Vadris the drug peddler, who’s been an arse the entire book, has the chance to shatter Mags’ newfound confidence and instead reassures her, and in so doing, creates space for his own redemption.

Those improbable moments of compassion are my version of Goldman’s “stupid courage”. They get me every time.

Those are the moments that get me most as well, they are such a treat to read and make for lots of food for thought.

How about some lighter questions to wrap up? Is there anything you’re always hoping someone will ask you about in interviews but so far, you’ve never gotten the chance to mention?
“Excuse me, sir? I just found this huge bag of money. Is it yours, by chance?”

Now that’d be handy!
Do you have a story idea that you love, or you’ve had kicking around in your mind, maybe even gotten started on a few times, but haven’t been able to make it work yet?
Ages ago, when I first sat down to write the manuscript that would become Traitor’s Blade, I had an entirely different idea about a story featuring four septuagenarian women in an old age home in the aftermath of a flood that’s cut off the town from outside help and vampires have come to feast on those left behind. The old women kick the vampires’ arses.

Ok, but I definitely need the kickass septuagenarians so please don’t let that idea go. I think I speak for everyone in saying we’d love to see it one day.
Would you give us two recommendations, one for a book you’ve read and loved recently and another for a book you think fans of your work would enjoy?
I recently had the rare privilege of reading a manuscript from the legendary Ellen Kushner (author of Swordspoint). I can’t tell you anything about it, but it was terrific fun to read and fans of her unique blend of Jane Austen-esque fantasy have a treat in store.
Those who enjoy my books and have yet to read Jhereg by Steven Brust . . . what are you waiting for? It’s fantastic!

Oooh eyes peeled then.
Finally, is there anything you can tell us about any future books? Personally, I can’t wait for Our Lady of Blades!
Well, let’s see . . .
• I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be announcing this yet, but fans of mercenary mages who go around blowing things up and swearing constantly will have much to celebrate come Spring 2025.

• Our Lady of Blades, the most challenging book I’ve ever attempted (and hopefully the best), will be coming out in the Fall of 2025.

• One way or another, my quirky mystery novel is coming out within the next year. Soon thereafter, a very, very secret science fiction project written with a fellow author that I think will make a big splash.

• Fans of Ferius Parfax might be interested to know I’ve already written the fourth book, though I’m not yet sure when it’ll be coming out or from which publisher.

• Both Spellslinger and the Greatcoats have been optioned for film and television and, I believe, currently being shopped to studios. Who knows if anything will come of it, but you never know!

Well now I am positively vibrating with excitement for all that is to come! Thank you again for taking the time to answer my questions here today, it was such a pleasure getting the chance to pick your brain!
My pleasure. Thanks for the insightful questions!

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Sebastien de Castell had just finished a degree in Archaeology when he started work on his first dig. Four hours later he realized how much he actually hated archaeology and left to pursue a very focused career as a musician, ombudsman, interaction designer, fight choreographer, teacher, project manager, actor, and product strategist. His only defence against the charge of unbridled dilettantism is that he genuinely likes doing these things and that, in one way or another, each of these fields plays a role in his writing. He sternly resists the accusation of being a Renaissance Man in the hopes that more people will label him that way.

Sebastien’s acclaimed swashbuckling fantasy series, The Greatcoats was shortlisted for both the 2014 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fantasy, the Gemmell Morningstar Award for Best Debut, the Prix Imaginales for Best Foreign Work, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His YA fantasy series, Spellslinger, was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and has been translated into more than a dozen languages around the world.

Sebastien lives in Vancouver, Canada with his lovely wife and two belligerent cats. You can reach him at www.decastell.com

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