An Interview with Sebastien de Castell

Sebastien de Castell is no stranger to Grimdark Magazine. Back in issue #28 of the magazine (we’re now on #38, so quite a while ago!) we published his short story “The Sword of Seven Tears”. He is most well-known for his epic Greatcoats series (which we too have covered – book 1, book 2, book 3). He is also the author of The Malevolent Seven, a dark but comedic fantasy, with a feel that’s very different from the Greatcoats (read our review here). Now, he returns to the world of the Greatcoats for an utterly new series of interconnected stories within Tristia – betrayals and conspiracies abound so this is prime reading fodder for us. The books are fun first and foremost, and we had a blast catching up with Sebastien on all things Court of Shadows.

Cover of Play of Shadows by Sebastian de Castell[GdM] Can you pitch Play of Shadows in one or two sentences for our readers?
[SdC] After fleeing a judicial duel, Damelas Chademantaigne takes refuge among the actors of a legendary theatre company. But when he takes to the stage, he finds himself channeling the spirit of the city’s most notorious villain and blurting treasonous lines in front of the audience that could spark a civil war. Now Damelas and a motley band of actors must uncover the truth of a hundred year old murder before the city goes up in flames.

[GdM] You’ve now published two stories in this series, the prequel Crucible of Chaos and Play of Shadows, the official start to the series. How do these fit into your broader work, and what should readers expect in future?
[SdC] The Court of Shadows series introduces us to seven different heroes in different parts of the country all uncovering different aspects of a shadowy conspiracy that could see Tristia lose its freedom forever. While this new series takes place two years after the events of the Greatcoats Quartet, I’ve been careful to write each of the new books in a way that new readers don’t need to have read the earlier ones. In fact, you can even read each of the Court of Shadows books in whatever order you like until the final, climactic volume!

[GdM] I imagine many readers of Play of Shadows are coming to the story cold – like I did. Would you be able to give a quick explanations of what a Greatcoat is within your work?
[SdC] The Greatcoats are members of the King’s Order of Travelling Magistrates. Think of them as swashbuckling judges who traverse their assigned circuits around the country, hearing cases, rendering judgements and, all too often, having to fight duels to enforce those verdicts.

[GdM] Play of Shadows stands out to me due to its theatre setting. Have you yourself done theatre, and where does your fascination with it stem from?
[SdC] Years ago, I was fortunate to be hired to choreograph sword fights for various theatre productions. That’s when I first glimpsed the strange magic that takes place behind the curtain, and the even stranger actors, stage-hands, directors and others who work their mysterious spells upon the audience – and each other. I adored the unexpected camaraderie of the theatre with all its extravagant dramatic turns both on-stage and off. Play of Shadows, with its unusual theatrically-based magic system and larger-than-life characters, is very much a love letter to those who continue to cast their enchantments upon audiences to this day.

[GdM] I love the library in Play of Shadows, and its codified hierarchy of reader’s passes. I’d love to know more about what one has to do to reach the higher echelons within the system and about some of the books that might be harder to access.
[SdC] Much as I enjoy the theatre, I adore libraries even more. To me, these are the cathedrals of humanism: places where anyone can seek out whatever stories speak to them, pursue whatever paths of knowledge they want, all without charged for that knowledge or being judged for what they want to learn. But the notion of libraries being free to all is quite modern. In the past, they were very much treasure vaults of learning open only to the wealthy and privileged.

The Grand Library of Jereste which features in Play of Shadows takes that notion of exclusivity even farther, with special disc-shaped broaches with a particular precious metal or gemstone at the centre which establishes the level of access and special services to which the wearer is entitled. Some of these can be echelons can be achieved through social status, others through wealth, but the highest ones of all . . . well, those require connections kept secret from even the nobility.

[GdM] You clearly have a lot of experience writing fight scenes. Do you have any tips for our readers who moonlight as writers?
[SdC] I’ve written about this in other places, notably here.

But here are the two techniques I think writers do well to work on if they want to create compelling fight scenes:

1. Let the reader choreograph the fight. Instead of pages of intricate descriptions of every move, use the opening beats of the fight to show how the weapons work and the stylistic differences between your two fighters. That way the reader will keep imagining all kinds of wonderful lunges, thrusts, envelopments, parries and feints all while you carry them through what really matters: what’s happening to the characters.

2. Build a dramatic structure to your fight scene. If every thrust of a sword’s blade is “the most terrifying thing ever!” then your scene’s not going to have anywhere to go. Think of building tension, of playing with tempo and the rhythm of the fight. Give each character tricks and schemes that they – and we – think will bring them victory . . . then dash those hopes upon the rocks of cruel fate. The reason why so many readers skim battle scenes is that they’re too often written as a sort of dry, uninflected reportage with too many adjectives and adverbs. Think of two stories unfolding in parallel: the one in which weapons are clashing and wounds are being inflicted, and the one that’s happening inside the mind and soul of your characters – the one in which it’s not just their lives on the line, but their sense of right and wrong, their beliefs about who they are and whether they’re really the hero of their own story, or merely the villain in someone else’s.

[GdM] Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on next (apart from the next book in the series)?
[SdC] There’s a tremendous amount going on in my writing life at the moment. The thing about being a full-time author is that you’re either on your way up or your way down; it’s rare to find a period of stability where you can reliably coast on your success. Right now happens to be an upward cycle in my career, which means lots of negotiations on new book contracts as well as in other mediums.

As most of my readers know, the Greatcoats books are always closest to my heart. I adore swashbuckling fantasy both as a genre and as a way of expressing ideals that are too often disregarded as anachronisms of a more romantic era. With that in mind, I’m hard at work on Our Lady of Blades, the next novel in the Court of Shadows Series.

I’ve also started on the first of two sequels to Malevolent Seven, so fans of foul-mouthed mercenary mages can look forward to reading that in Spring of 2025. Oh, and I promise to make this book even weirder and more irreverent than the first one.
The fourth book in the Ferius Parfax series (a prequel spin-off from the Spellslinger books) has already been written. I haven’t decided on the publication date for that, but it should be sometime in the next twelve months.

Lastly, both the Spellslinger and Greatcoats series have been optioned for film and television. It’s too early to say whether we’ll be seeing any swashbuckling magistrates or murderous squirrel cats on screen anytime soon, but the people involved in the projects are excellent so I’m optimistic!

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Fabienne Schwizer

Fabienne Schwizer

Fabienne can usually be found with her nose in a book or two. Most of her life revolves around words, be that reading, writing, or editing. You can find more of her ramblings over on www.libridraconis.com, where she also reviews YA books and more lighthearted Fantasy and Science Fiction, as @FLSchwizer on Twitter, and @libri_draconis on Instagram. If you're curious about what she is currently reading, check out www.goodreads.com/libridraconis.

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