How Sebastien de Castell forged a path into the world of fantasy

Sebastien de Castell

by Timothy Pike

At the age of twenty-seven, Sebastien de Castell was picking through the shelves of his local library when he found a box of cassette tapes that would change his life.

“I was barely making a living,” Sebastien tells me, “and staring down the barrel of losing any sense of creativity in my career. So I did what I always do in such troubled times, and went to the public library.”

It was a place the Quebec native—who now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia—knew he would be in his element. “I’ve always loved libraries,” Sebastien says, “not simply for the books, but for the fact that it’s a place where you can explore and imagine, and nobody tells you what you should or shouldn’t read, or what you can or can’t accomplish.”

“Anyway,” he continues, “I found this old set of cassette tapes in a cardboard box, entitled ‘Let’s Write a Mystery,’ by Ralph McInerny. I had to go find myself a cassette player just to listen to them, but there was something about Ralph’s soothing voice, his patient lessons, and uncompromising insistence that you ‘get your pages done’ each day. By the time I got to the end of those twenty-four tapes, I’d written my first novel.”

Even though Sebastien wasn’t thrilled with the finished product, he reveled in the sense of accomplishment. “The resulting book was terrible,” he recalls. “Amateurish, bombastic, unrealistic, and with a plot that barely made any sense. And I absolutely loved it.”

With that achievement, Sebastien instantly unlocked a new life path. “Something about surviving that long, twisted journey of writing a first novel, with no clue if it would work at all, altered the way my brain worked,” he says. “I was filled with a deeper sense of confidence that I could tackle hard things than I’d ever felt before.”

Suddenly, things started happening for him. “I got hired for jobs I never would’ve attempted before, took on new challenges and experiences that made life vastly more interesting to me,” Sebastien says. “In fact, it wasn’t until years later that I felt the need to write a second book. That one, a swashbuckling tale of idealism and friendship, became Traitor’s Blade, and launched my career.”

That was in 2014, and since then, Sebastien has built a career that most writers only dream of: his books have garnered plenty of praise, stellar reviews, and a loyal fan base with readers worldwide. He’s been nominated for numerous awards, and has won several of them, including the Booknest Best Fantasy Award and the Centurion Award for Best Novel.

Sebastien’s books offer an empowering message: anyone can succeed, regardless of where they came from.

“Writing has been my full-time career since shortly after Traitor’s Blade appeared on shelves,” Sebastien says. “I’ve been incredibly fortunate that both my main series, the swashbuckling fantasy epic The Greatcoats, and my young adult fantasy series, Spellslinger, have found audiences around the world.”

As bona fide global hits, Sebastien’s books have been translated into fifteen different languages. “Because my wife and I love to travel,” he says, “it means so much to me that my books are read by people in the places I visit, and in their own language.”

That’s a lot of achievement in eight short years, so naturally, I wanted to know how Sebastien stays so productive. Turns out that while many people live their lives one day at a time, Sebastien lives his by the month. “I’ve never liked routines,” he explains, “and I find trying to impose too much order on my life fills me with paralyzing anxiety. On the other hand, without some kind of routine, I’ll procrastinate forever. So what I do now is decide at the beginning of a month how I want to live my life for that month.”

At the start of each month, Sebastien goes over his options. “Do I want to write a brand-new novel, writing every morning until I have two or three chapters so that by the end of the month I’ve got an entire draft?” he says. “Or do I want to wake up and exercise first thing in the morning every day for a month, and then do rewrites or something entirely different for the rest of the day?”

The variety keeps his routine fresh and his mind sharp. “Basically,” Sebastien says, “I construct a plan one month at a time and see how well it goes, because that’s a period of time I can stick to without feeling trapped. If it works, I can take parts of it forward into the next month, and if not, I try something else.”

Mirroring his roll-with-the-punches daily routine is the way Sebastien approaches writing. “I rarely outline,” he says, “because doing so makes it harder for me to discover interesting twists along the way, and I’d rather write myself into corners and then have to surprise myself with the solution than plan where everything is headed and have to pretend I don’t already know.”

“I rarely outline,” Sebastien says. “I’d rather write myself into corners and then have to surprise myself with the solution.”

In 2017, Sebastien released his Spellslinger series, which he describes as “anti–Harry Potter”—although maybe not for the reason you’d expect. “It’s not that I don’t like Harry Potter,” he explains. “I loved those books. But they didn’t reflect my personal experience as a teenager, which wasn’t about discovering some grand destiny, being born with fantastic talents, having parents who loved me more than anyone else’s parents, or being secretly rich.”

For Sebastien, it was more about embracing the person he was and finding his own way. “However much I admired those books,” he says, “I couldn’t help but recall that my own teenage years were more about the awkward discovery that I wasn’t as smart, athletic, talented, or handsome as lots of other people. Heck, I didn’t even have the best personality. So for me, those years were about trying to find ways to become a more interesting person—to forge my own path through the world rather than the one I’d always hoped would be opened for me.”

It’s no wonder that the stories Sebastien wrote reflected the way he viewed himself and his place in the world. “Spellslinger is about Kellen,” he says, “a young man from a magical society who finds himself woefully lacking in the magic department, and is forced to survive on tricks, insight, and daring. He’s mentored by a mysterious stranger named Ferius, who possesses no magic of her own, yet who never backs down from mages. She teaches Kellen the ways of the Argosi—wandering philosopher gamblers who rely entirely on human talents to survive.”

The books offer an empowering message: anyone can succeed, regardless of where they came from. “In the same way that Kellen is sort of the opposite of Harry Potter,” Sebastien says, “Ferius and the Argosi are kind of the anti-Jedi. Instead of being born with ‘the Force,’ they take abilities that all of us can learn, like eloquence, daring, music, dance, charm, and resilience, and develop them to such a high degree that they can outwit and outfight powerful mages. The Argosi don’t follow any hierarchy, they don’t follow a strict set of rules, but instead seek to find their own unique path through life.”

Readers were happy to let Sebastien know how strongly this resonated with them. “The funny thing that happened after the Spellslinger books started coming out,” he tells me, “was that I’d get tons of letters from people of all ages asking how to become an Argosi. I had to remind them that the Argosi are fictional, but still, readers kept wanting to know more. So after I finished the sixth and final Spellslinger book, I started exploring Ferius’s life as a young woman first learning the Argosi ways. Those books became Way of the Argosi and Fall of the Argosi.”

Both of these novels are in bookstores now, so if you’re looking to become an Argosi yourself—or just want to read a couple of outstanding fantasy novels—you’re in luck.

As he continues to forge a path ahead, Sebastien is not slowing down. “In January of 2023, I’ve got a brand new fantasy novel entitled Malevolent Seven coming out,” he tells me, “which is kind of like The Magnificent Seven but with badass wizards. Also in 2023, the next book in the Greatcoats series, Play of Shadows, will be coming out. It’s a swashbuckling fantasy in which a young man who joins the theater to flee a duel finds himself possessed by the spirit of one of the characters he plays on stage—and that character happens to be his society’s most notorious villain.”

Sebastien de Castell lives in Vancouver, Canada, with his lovely wife and two belligerent cats. His acclaimed swashbuckling fantasy series, The Greatcoats, was shortlisted for both the 2014 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fantasy, the Gemmell Morningstar Award for Best Debut, the Prix Imaginales for Best Foreign Work, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His YA fantasy series, Spellslinger, was nominated for the Carnegie Medal, and is published in more than a dozen languages.

Visit Sebastien at his website, and connect with him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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