I think books are one of the most precious resources on the planet. As soon as you open a novel, you’re transported to a brand new world. A good author makes their characters stand out. A great author makes their stories resonate for years to come. That is how I feel about The Greatcoats quartet, a collection that has turned into my favourite book series of all time. So, what could be better than reading them, you ask? Getting to talk to the guy that created the books!
Sebastien De Castell was awesome enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to me about The Greatcoats and his writing process. In the interview, Sebastien reveals how he created the characters of Falcio, Kest and Brasti and who he’d pick for Falcio to duel in another fantasy novel. Oh, and something about a new Greatcoats series coming out in the future.
Thanks so much for taking to do the time to talk Sebastien. I know you’re finishing up on the Spellslinger series and the daring adventures of Kellen and Rechis. But there are a certain group of other daring misfits I’d like to get your thoughts on. The Greatcoats quartet is still one of the best series I’ve had the pleasure to read. For anyone who’s never heard of it, how would you describe it?
The Greatcoats is a swashbuckling fantasy series about an order of disgraced sword-wielding magistrates trying to fulfill the last enigmatic commands of their dead king. The books delve into the way idealism and justice conflict with the cynicism and pragmatism most of us have come to accept.
Looking back on how the fandom for The Greatcoats has built, what kind of experiences have you had when travelling and promoting the series?
I’ve been really lucky with the Greatcoats that so many readers have embraced Falcio and his band of duelling magistrates. I tour a fair amount, especially in Europe, so it’s wonderful to meet people from different countries all keen to share their perspectives on the series, the characters, and the themes that mean so much to me.
I’ve read in other interviews that you based Falcio, Kest and Brasti on historical magistrates who travelled from town to town to hear verdicts. The poor sods. How did you go about researching the time period?
Because I don’t write historical fiction, I tend to avoid over-researching because you risk bringing something out of its historical and cultural context – creating a rather messy stew rather than a cohesive whole.
What struck me about England’s 12th Century “Justices Itinerant” was just how vital they were as a force for giving a nation cohesion given the King’s authority was largely subverted by local lords once you got out of the capital. I was captivated by just how dangerous a proposition it would be for a travelling magistrate to come to a town and rule against a local lord, knowing that the King’s forces would be too far away to do them any good.
Falcio’s tireless quest for justice and dedication to his king’s dream made him a brilliant protagonist. It also made him reckless, belligerent and brought him close to death countless times. When writing such a complicated character, did you find yourself rooting for him all the time or wanting to shake him and shout “stop trying to get everyone you love killed?”
I’m always rooting for Falcio, but that’s only because I understand what’s driving him. He’s much more broken on the inside than most people can see at first, and in fact it’s only as you go through each book in the series that you come to see the truth of why he’s so obsessed with justice and why the Greatcoats are the way they are. I always wanted him to be balanced on the razor’s edge between a daring hero and a tragic figure, propelled both by a deep idealism about humanity and a kind of hubris over how much you can count on them.
It’s a good thing Falcio had Kest and Brasti to keep him in check. When looking at their dynamic, I thought of Kest as the reason, Falcio as the heart and Brasti as the glue that held them together. Can you expand on how you wanted to portray their group relationship?
I created Kest and Brasti first and foremost to make Falcio insecure. I wanted him to see Kest as this guy who was so much better than he was as a swordsman and a tactician. Meanwhile Brasti is handsome, lovable, and able to enjoy the world in a way that Falcio can’t imagine. So Falcio really sees himself – especially in the first book – as the lesser of the three, and for me the fact that he can’t see his own worth makes him especially appealing to write.
Kest’s practicality made him a great counterpoint to Falcio’s stubborn idealism. I loved the scene in Saint’s Blood where Falcio goes to the Land of The Dead to bring Kest back to life. How did you go about creating Kest’s voice?
Kest, above all else, avoids self-deception. He deals with the world as he sees it, never trying to make things out to be better or worse than they are. It’s both the means by which he’s made himself into an incomparable fencer, but also the way he deals with the things in life he knows he’ll never have.
That kind of stoicism brings a certain voice that makes a lovely counterpoint to Brasti’s epicureanism and Falcio’s idealism. It’s funny that you mention the scene when Falcio enters the land of the dead to bring him back, because that’s the one scene in the entire series where we get to see past Kest’s stoic exterior and see some of the fragility inside.
Whenever Brasti came out with a line I found myself laughing out loud. I thought he had some great moments in Knight’s Shadow and Saint’s Blood. I was curious how he and Falcio met and the circumstances that made Falcio decide “I’m going to recommend this idiot for The Greatcoats.’ Can you reveal more about his past?
That part’s a secret, I’m afraid, as I’m planning on writing the origins of how the three of them met into a book sometime in the future.
The portrayal of women in the series is wonderful. Valiana, Aline, Ethalia, Trin and so many other characters stood out. Were there any real life figures that you took inspiration from when constructing the female cast?
I tend to write characters in the same way that I experience people in real life. You meet someone, you think you know who and what they are, but then, little by little, you encounter all the nuances and contradictions in them. This is the one way in which Falcio is very much like me: he tends to make snap judgments about people and only later comes to see all the fascinating depths they keep hidden beneath the surface. So it’s not so much that I pull from real people as from the ways in which real people have surprised me over the course of my life.
Duke Jillard was another character that got my attention. I loved how Falcio’s relationship with him became more complex over the series. What do you think it is about complicated villains that makes them so appealing to readers?
As much as our darker sides tend to want the “other” to be evil so that we can discount their humanity and thus justify any act against them, it’s much more satisfying to discover the ways in which those we think of as enemies have just as much inner complexity as we ourselves. I find it’s hard to build empathy and compassion right from the start. It feels more natural to allow Falcio – and the reader – to make initial assumptions about people like Jillard or Trin and then slowly uncover the layers beneath.
The series is filled with so many great moments. My favourite has to be when Falcio and the others retake their oaths to Aline in Saint’s Blood. Which scenes were your favourite to write?
I enjoyed that moment a great deal. Originally I hadn’t fleshed it out, but the fine folks in my writing group pushed me to go deeper. They said they’d never gotten to hear the Greatcoats’ oaths and wanted to see more.
There have been loads of scenes in each of the books I enjoyed writing, some exciting, some dark. One of my favourites is a moment that happens between Falcio and Trin where he realises that, on some strange level, she genuinely likes him. Then, just as quickly, she delivers that line at the end when he asks how she could have stood there and laughed when someone died and she replies, “Because it was funny.” Trin knows she’s insane, which shouldn’t really be possible, and yet, she does.
I thought the ending of Tyrant’s Throne wrapped the whole series together neatly. Did you spend a lot of time redrafting the ending or did you have an idea set already?
The ends of books tend to be the easiest parts for me to write. Once I know where I want the characters and themes to resolve, it comes quite naturally. The challenge is building up to those payoffs meaningfully. When you look at the end of Tyrant’s Throne, you can see how dangerously sweet that could’ve ended up becoming had not every element of the conclusion been paid for in blood and tragedy earlier in the book.
For any budding fantasy author, what kind of advice would you give for creating a realistic world?
What makes a book realistic is how much we can believe in the human motivations that underpin it. You want a world with giant floating castles? Come up with a reason why human beings – even if they had the magic or technology to make that happen – would actually do such a thing. Realism is, despite what you tend to hear, an entirely subjective appraisal. So focus on understanding why things came to be rather than just what they appear to be.
If you could choose anyone else in fantasy literature for Falcio to duel, who would it be?
André Moreau from Raphael Sabatini’s wonderful swashbuckling novel, Scaramouche. Moreau and Falcio both tend to give long speeches, so hearing them banter back and forth as they fence would be a wonderful scene to write.
Given how popular The Greatcoats are, I know I’m eager for their adventures to continue. Are you planning on a new series and if so, will it be a prequel or sequel?
I’m working on the first book in the new series now. It features new characters (with some of the familiar ones turning up here and there) and is titled Our Lady of Blades. Lots of duelling, intrigue, and disguises.
Finally, I’d like to settle an argument for all the fans out there. Which weapon would you choose: The sword or the bow?
If I had to survive out there in a dangerous world with only one weapon, I think the bow is more versatile for things like hunting and for the fact that you can make arrows more easily than replace a sword blade. On the other hand, there’s nothing quite like the feel of a rapier grip in your hand . . .
The Greatcoats Quartet is available to buy on Amazon. If you’d like to learn more about the new Duellist series then be sure to check out Sebastien’s website for more swashbuckling anecdotes.