Followers of this blog likely know by now that I’m a fan of Sebastien de Castell’s Greatcoats series, about a ragtag band of wandering magistrates trying to save a fallen land. And I’m not just a fan because of that one time de Castell bought me beach French fries! These are damned fine books – solid fantasy novels written by a literary master who’s concerned about real-life issues of honour, ethics and what makes a person good rather than just law-abiding.
Now de Castell has a new series out – the Spellslinger books. They follow the misadventures of Kellen, a young man in a society where almost everyone is a mage – except Kellen. Sounds like high school, doesn’t it? It has certainly has that YA vibe about it, but like the Greatcoats series there’s plenty of politics, interrogations of history, ethics, philosophy and Issues with a capital I here. De Castell is that rare kind of writer who tells a good tale while also exploring the things that matter in real life to all of us. I don’t want to talk about the first book in the series too much because the plot is all about the twists and surprises. I’ll just say if you like your fantasy worlds complex and your characters flawed and fallen, then you’ll want to read Spellslinger. Plus, there’s a talking, homicidal squirrel cat! (I’m personally convinced it’s a stand-in for de Castell himself, but that’s a subject for another blog post….)
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.
Over at my day job, I talk to bestselling fantasy writer Sebastien de Castell about the time he met George R.R. Martin at the Hugo Awards and it didn’t go so well. Check out de Castell’s Greatcoats series if you have the chance — it’s one of my favourite reads right now, and we have all the same influences.
“He grabs this invitation for the Hugo losers party,” de Castell said, referring to the annual party that Martin hosts for those nominees who don’t win a Hugo Award. “He says, ‘I may as well give you this now because it’s safe money you’re going to lose.’”
I’ve long been a fan of Sebastien de Castell and his Greatcoats series, which started with Traitor’s Blade, so I got a kick out of sharing some Amazon bestseller space with him. He’ll never let me live it down that he beat The Apocalypse Ark, though….
If you want to learn more about Sebastien and his kickass fantasy series, check out the interview and podcast I did with him at The Province, where he talks about moving from the barista lifestyle to the rich and glamorous life of a plumber after signing an eight-book publishing deal (it’s all explained in the interview).
I had a great conversation with Vancouver fantasy writer Sebastien de Castell about his new blockbuster book deal — eight books over four years! — and how he’s finally earning plumber money. Seriously, Sebastien is a great writer and a fun interviewee. Check out the article and the podcast!
I’ve published a piece called B.C.’s Bookish Blades over at the Province. It features three insanely talented writers from B.C. talking about their new books: CC Humphreys, Sebastien de Castell and Ian Weir. These are the writers who make other writers insane with jealousy because they have both the commercial chops and the literary language. Great stuff. Check out their books today!
Historical thrillers are nothing new. In fact, they’ve been around since we started recording history. What are The Odyssey and Beowulf if not their era’s version of Dan Brown or Andrew Pyper?
But a trio of B.C. authors are writing a new chapter for the historical thriller genre, and they’re turning to past masterpieces for inspiration. C.C. Humphreys, Sebastien de Castell and Ian Weir are also breaking down some of the walls between genre fiction and literary fiction to write perhaps the most literary thrillers yet.