Saint Sebastien, who deserves his own TV series
If Sebastien de Castell were a character in his Greatcoats series of fantasy books, he’d be Saint Sebastien Who Pisses Off Other Writers. The saints in his tales are those who are so good at what they do that they transcend being human and become something else entirely – call it divine if you will, but it’s a little more complex than that in de Castell’s universe.
In fact, everything is more complex in de Castell’s tales of travelling magistrates trying to restore order to the failing society of Tristia and the even more failing realm of the gods and saints and all the others that have forsaken the people of the world.
At its heart, this is a series of action books driven by strong plots with plenty of swordplay, witty banter, and more than a few cliffhangers as Greatcoats leader Falcio von Mond and a couple of comrades move through the troubled land trying to restore order but generally causing more chaos in the process. Falcio and company are as compelling as they are entertaining, but every character in the book is multilayered and full of surprises. Nobody is quite what they appear in Tristia, including the lovable narrator Falcio.
The books have their share of winks and nods at Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and Roger Zelazny’s Amber books in their literary style, roguish characters and their textual playfulness (complexity?), although de Castell is clearly striking his own path. They are so skillfully crafted and, well, fun that they feel lighter than they actually are. For every moment of lightness, though, there is a moment of darkness. While the Greatcoats series in some ways pushes back against the grimdark trend in contemporary fantasy, at other times it is more dark than the darkest of grimdark books – not in terms of blood and gore but where the books go psychologically. There is no place darker than the depths of human soul, and de Castell doesn’t hesitate to descend into its depths and strike a match.
As if that’s not enough to satisfy a reader, de Castell layers the books with more intrigue than an Umberto Eco murder mystery set in a papal conclave. Everybody in Tristia has an agenda – the Greatcoats, the knights they so despise, the religious zealots, the gods, even the dead. Just when Falcio thinks he has everything figured out, someone always proves him wrong. And being wrong in de Castell’s world usually leaves our fallen heroes trapped in a dungeon or somewhere even less hospitable. It’s a delight to read because you can never see the next twist coming, even though you know it most definitely is coming.
If action, adventure and intrigue are the lifeblood pumping through the veins of this series, then philosophy is its heart. At the centre of the Greatcoats books is what it means to be good and honourable and just. It’s this interrogation of the soul that makes the book so relevant to modern readers and not just another throwaway tale of some fantasy world or another. It’s a credit to de Castell that he doesn’t provide any easy answers.
Did I say de Castell? I meant Saint Sebastien Who Makes Other Writers Look Like Drunken Peasants. May the gods grant us a fraction of his skill and an even greater fraction of his fortune.