An interview with Sebastien de Castell

Last Updated on June 11, 2023

Fantasy fans will be well aware of Sebastien de Castell by now – and if you aren’t, then you are truly missing out. His debut series, The Greatcoats, has been described as “Three Musketeers meets high fantasy”, and it won him a legion of fans for its effortless combination of heroism, humour and tragedy.

De Castell built on his success with the Spellslinger series, a set of books that lean more YA but also thrilled traditional fantasy aficionados. Now, with a popular and successful body of work behind him, de Castell is debuting a new series with book one titled the Malevolent Seven. This time, the not-so-good guys are our heroes and it promises to be an epic adventure that de Castell’s fans will lap up.

The man himself was kind enough to open up on the new series for Grimdark Magazine…

Hi Sebastien, thanks for taking the time to answer some of our questions! Your Greatcoats series is one of my all-time favourites and I had a lot of fun reading The Malevolent Seven.

In the Greatcoats, Falcio Val Mond is almost a paragon of justice and good values. In the Malevolent Seven, Cade Ombra is pretty much as far away from that as you can get. What made you want to write from the perspective of the ‘villains’ or anti-heroes this time?

It’s natural to draw distinctions between Cade as the cynical mercenary mage and Falcio the valorous swashbuckler. Cade focuses only on the necessities of the moment and hanging onto what’s left of his sense of decency while Falcio is unwavering in his dogged determination to live up to his ideals. And yet, for me, the two are almost like twin brothers separated not by circumstances or events, but by the presence or absence of a single person: Aline.

Without giving any spoilers here, when you consider Falcio and Cade’s backstories, both share a youthful need to live up to a sort of heroic ideal. Both also experience not only loss but far too many events that seem to disprove their idealistic view of the world. Cade becomes a mercenary mage because he sees no other alternative in a world where no one really believes in his ideals. Falcio, however, has the memory of his wife, Aline. She wasn’t just someone he lost to the cruelties rampant in his society, but the person who embodied the ideals he holds dear.

The Malevolent Seven explores the supposed divide between “good guys” and “bad guys” in a number of ways, and in the end, comes to argue that what makes us good or bad people is less about how our lives unfold and more about who we meet along the way. That’s why, despite all the differences between the Greatcoats and the Malevolent Seven, friendship – even between the most imperfect people – proves to be the most powerful magic spell humanity has ever devised for giving each of us a shot at redemption.

This book is pretty dark, with a lot of graphic deaths and scenes. Did you set out with the intention of making something grimdark fans would love?The Malevolent Seven

No, I’ve never really been a Grimdark author. On the other hand, darkness in fantasy is hardly the sole province of Grimdark. I remember when Traitor’s Blade came out (and there are loads of dark and sometimes graphic scenes in the Greatcoats series), a few reviewers starting referring to it as “Charmdark”. I like that idea, because the essence of swashbuckling is facing strife and impossible odds with a smile on your face. The Grimdark fans who enjoy the Greatcoats tend to be ones who appreciate both grittiness and the notion that valour and compassion aren’t necessarily inherently flawed ideals no matter how dark the world gets. So, for me, despite the antiheroic side to Malevolent Seven, that swashbuckling vibe still runs through the book.

What’s your process for writing some of the darker and heavier scenes? Do you have to go and play with puppies afterwards or is it quite easy for you to disconnect?

I’m never chasing dark or graphic scenes, but rather dramatic ones. As a writer, I’m a servant of drama first and foremost. I’m looking for moments that spark the strongest emotions in me. Some will be light and fun while others, by necessity, will be dark and heavy. But because I’m searching for that sense of underlying drama, I’m often oblivious to how dark the writing can become. It’s only later where I’ll realize I’ve dug myself into a very dark place. From there, I have to decide whether that dark place is one where I genuinely want to bring the audience, or whether the “shock and awe” is actually going to undermine the emotional drama.

But yeah, I have two professional writing cats who are expert at deciding when I’m getting too near the edge and will come demand cuddles (well, food, mostly – I think the cuddles are just to humour me) to bring me back from the brink.

There’s a lot of angels and demons in this book, as well as religious symbolism. What are some of the inspirations for your world? Are there any particular historical sources that you found interesting?

I’ve been asking myself that same question lately because I’m really not a religious person. I’m happy to be friends with religious people of all kinds, but it’s not something that occupies my own sense of spirituality. What prompted the ideas behind the Auroral realm with its Lords Celistine and various Angelics set against the Infernals with their Lords Devilish, demoniacs, diabolics and profanes, was far more to do with workings of our own world in the twenty-first century.

Lately, we’ve witnessed relatively small groups of varying political and social perspectives waging war not so much on each other as on those in the middle. Everything’s become a holy crusade and your true enemy isn’t the person who embodies everything you despise but the person who fails to embody everything you believe. The various scenes of rollicking adventure and irreverent humour of The Malevolent Seven take place against a backdrop where the Infernals and the Aurorals have spent thousands of years trying to recruit humanity to their side. That’s why I intentionally kept either of them from being either straightforwardly good or evil, because for all their differences, the Infernals and Aurorals are united in trying to force everyone else to one side or the other of the line they’ve chosen to draw. They want the war so badly they crave the thrill of bloodshed even more than the prospect of victory. That resonated with me strongly.

One of my favourite books of all time is Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett because, in addition to being wonderfully imaginative and incredibly funny, it’s also a story about how the world’s redemption lies not in our adherence to one side or another, but in the silly, awkward, sometimes even pathetic foibles of our own shared humanity. That’s a very antiquated, humanist, and unconscionably liberal perspective. It’s also the belief that keeps me sane.

Despite the bleakness of the world, you inject a lot of humour throughout. With Cade constantly talking to the reader, some people have compared The Malevolent Seven to things like Deadpool, while the humour reminds me a bit of something like Kings of the Wyld. Which books, comics or movies inspired you and made you want to write something with horror and humour in tandem?

I’ve never seen darkness and humour as incompatible, nor do I tend to use humour for the “joke factor” since I’m not a comedian by any stretch. One of the most remarkable things about humour is that it’s a language that we all speak. When we’re bantering with someone else, we’re using a particular language to say things that we wouldn’t otherwise know how to say. In The Malevolent Seven, Cade and Corrigan are mercenary wonderists who, despite their friendship, struggle to fully trust one another. Neither of them can say to the other, “Hey, you’re my friend and I love you.” So, instead, they call each other arseholes in the exact way and at the precise moment that, though neither would admit it, enables them to reaffirm their bond. That’s my favourite use of humour: as a language spoken between characters to express sentiments they otherwise couldn’t.

Out of our seven, who is your favourite? Who did you have the most fun writing?

Aradeus was probably the most fun to write. I honestly had no idea who was going to be there when Cade and Corrigan first set out to recruit the rest of their motley band. Then, just as their barge turns that corner on a canal full of the dead, Aradeus Mozen, the worlds most handsome, honourable, swashbuckling rat mage appeared. He was everything Cade had told the reader a wonderist couldn’t be, and all the things Cade could no longer find in himself. Where Cade tries to hide his compassion for someone like Galass, believing that expressing any sort of optimism would be tantamount to hypocrisy, Aradeus manages to be genuinely encouraging and inspiring.

It’s always those sorts of characters who get me excited when I’m writing because they’re as unexpected to me as they are to the reader.

It was quite a spectacular ending to the book, one that promises even crazier adventures for our not-heroes in the future. How many books do you have planned for the series?

I try to write every book as a standalone because otherwise it feels like you’ve just read half a book rather than a complete one. But what makes a book complete for me is the emotional journey, not the broad events taking place in that world. The virtue of those other events is that they create the space for more novels should readers enjoy this one.

Sometimes, when you launch a “four book series” where the emotional payoffs for book one are only going to take place in book four, you end up in the trap that if the first book doesn’t find an audience, you may never get to tell the whole story. As a novelist, I really want to always tell the whole story. In that sense, Malevolent Seven is the whole story.

That said, I already know exactly how the opening scene of book two goes, and I’m getting a powerful hankering to write it . . .

Traitor's BladeThis is your 14th book, how different was the process in writing this one compared to your earlier works?

My writing process has always been all over the map. The very first draft of Traitor’s Blade was written in a flurry over the course of three days, only to then wait six years before I wrote the version that became my debut novel. Some books, like Play of Shadows which comes out next year, go through a great many drafts because every nuance of character and prose become integral to the story. Others, like Fall of the Argosi, happen over the course of a single, blissful month of writing and then, as if by magic, only need a light revision pass.

Malevolent Seven was somewhere in between, with the first draft written in February of 2020 when all I wanted to do was write a book just for me. I’d just come off finishing the six-book Spellslinger series, which, being YA fantasy, was falling prey with every instalment to an increasingly panicky sense of how terribly dangerous swear words might be to the future of our youth. At the same time, social media was abuzz with discussions of which fantasy sub-genres were tired or overdone and which ones were inherently problematic. I hate all that kind of talk. It makes me get stuck in my head and stifles any kind of creative impulse. So, I set about curing myself by writing what I like to call (sorry for the swearing) a “fuck you novel”.

The purpose of the “fuck you novel” is to write a book just for yourself without any concerns around it finding a publisher. It’s a sort of middle finger to whatever pressures and constraints are closing in around your creativity. Write what you want, say what you want, and let yourself stop caring about whether it satisfies anyone else’s criteria. Alas, my agent asked to see the manuscript when I was done and decided she loved it. I told her to forget it because it didn’t suit the current fantasy landscape. But after she retired and put me onto my current agent, he immediately asked to read it and decided he loved it, too. I still thought it was too much a novel for me rather than for other people, but then it got bought up and now it’s out there in the world.

I think the two lessons I learned from writing Malevolent Seven were these: first, despite how often I feel as if the world of Twitter was secretly engineered for the sole purpose of trying to censor artists, there’s very little that people object to that I actually want to say. So, really, the censorship is mostly inside my own head. And second, when I write a novel meant for no one but me, with no agenda for selling it, that’s when I free myself up to search for something genuinely meaningful. That’s when I write the kind of book other people want to read.

Weird, eh?

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Chron is a suffering journalist by day and loves to lose himself in magical worlds at night. Chron loves everything epic and has a soft spot for incredible warriors with even more incredible reputations (Hi Vaelin Al Sorna). He also enjoys a cheeky criminal caper and bleak fantasy where our heroes have no chance.