Sebastien de Castell is breaking the rules of fantasy

Sebastien de Castell

by Timothy Pike

Our cover author this month is award-winning fantasy author Sebastien de Castell. In our interview, Sebastien discusses his latest release, The Malevolent Seven.

For more about Sebastien, check out our interview with him from last year.

Thank you for joining us, Sebastien. What gave you the inspiration to write The Malevolent Seven?

Inspiration can be a deceptive word when it comes to writing, because it implies some event or insight that spurs an idea which then becomes a book. Most of the time, when I sit down to write a novel, there might be an idea that I think I’m exploring, but pretty quickly I discover what I’m really writing about is entirely different than what I expected. In other words, the story comes not so much from an idea or inspiration as a feeling or impetus.

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I’d always wanted to write a “Magnificent Seven with Wizards” book, combining the western gunslinger vibe with fantasy. However, the impetus that got me started on The Malevolent Seven was a feeling that so many of the fantasy novels I was picking up to read lately and so much of the discussion around fantasy generally was becoming hyper-formalized. Characters needed to be of this type or that type, and settings needed to be fantasy reflections of modern interpretations of historical places and cultures. “We must satisfy reader expectations,” writers are told these days. It’s a perspective that situations books as entertainment products forced to compete with television and video games. But my love of the genre had grown out of the wild and often bizarre fantasy novels of the ’70s and ’80s where you never really knew what was going to happen next because the writers weren’t quite as schooled in television and film conventions as we all are today. So, I thought I was pushing back against that: writing an unruly fantasy novel that would barrel along without regard for more modern sensibilities. I was going to write not to entertain someone else’s expectations but instead to entertain myself and refuse to worry about whether the book would ever sell to a publisher.

If you let the powerful—whichever side they purport to be on—have their way too long, eventually they’re going to really screw up the world.

What actually happened—and this is what I mean about never knowing why you’re writing something until you’ve put it on the page—is that I wrote an irreverent, sometimes funny, often dark fantasy adventure that centers on the adverse effects of wielding power in general, and magic specifically. Most people will likely read The Malevolent Seven as a fun, gritty fantasy romp full of anti-heroes forced into heroic deeds despite their best intentions. That’s completely fine. But what I realized while writing this novel is that much of the fantasy I encounter—and much of our discussions around society and politics—center around who gets to have power and whether they’re the “right” people to possess it instead of whether power itself might be the problem. We no longer debate whether the “ends justify the means”—as long as our side wins.

So, The Malevolent Seven became a tale about a band of mercenary wizards trying their best to ignore the problems around them only to discover that if you let the powerful—whichever side they purport to be on—have their way too long, eventually they’re going to really screw up the world.

What part or scene was the hardest to write? How about the most fun?

Because so much of this book is about friendships between people who don’t think they need (or deserve) friends at all, the scenes where I had to strain those relationships to the breaking point were the most difficult to write. I quite adore the perpetually teetering friendship between Cade and Corrigan—especially when at the last instant one of them does something unexpectedly decent for the other. Fraying those bonds was tricky because if they broke entirely, the story wouldn’t work any more.

Writing Aradeus, the handsome, swashbuckling mage who’s convinced that rat magic is the noblest of all, was fun right from the moment he first appeared on the page. I’d had no idea I was going to write him until he showed up with all his florid heroism and unexpectedly poignant decency. I love those moments.

It’s why we love stories in the first place: we are the heroes, we are the villains.

Do you identify with any of your characters?

I can identify with all my characters in my books; I wouldn’t be able to write them otherwise. This is something people sometimes forget about the act of writing: you don’t need to share the life history or physiology of a character to relate to them, only their underlying humanity. I have no idea what it’s like to be a seventeen year old girl raised in a corrupted monastery any more than I do a big brute of a thunder mage who likes to blow up castles and sleep around as often as possible. What I do understand is what it’s like to feel lonely or frightened, smugly self-righteous or unbearably joyous. I can relate to the impulse to do something irredeemably awful as well as the desperate hope of becoming a better person. We all can. It’s why we love stories in the first place: we are the heroes, we are the villains.

What is a significant way your novel changed from first draft to last?

My editor, the inimitable Jo Fletcher, would tell you it’s that the final draft had a plot and the first draft was just a bunch of “arsehole wizards blowing things up and cracking jokes.” I would prefer to phrase it that the final draft holds a few subtle tweaks to what was already an incomparable work of sublime genius. My wife, who is the ultimate arbiter of such things, has a terrible habit of siding with Jo.

Was writing this book any easier or harder than your others?

Easy or hard comes down to how strong the narrative impulse is that drives the story and how clear the main character’s voice is in your head. In this case, even before I knew what the book would be about, I started with this extremely strong urge to write from the point of view of an anti-hero mercenary wizard who would be constantly undermining our sense of what wizards should be even as he was always undercutting his own nature. Cade is halfway between a fantasy anti-hero and a classic film noir detective: cynical, sometimes bitter, yet always, always reaching for that last vestige of hope that humanity isn’t quite so awful as he’s been led to believe.

Are there any secrets or easter eggs about the story you can share?

I had a reviewer of the book write me today to say how much he loved the story and to beg me to reveal the secret choice Cade makes at the end. It’s not essential to the main story, and I won’t spoil it here, but I will say that the clues are there in the last chapter before the epilogue.

How do you celebrate finishing a book?

I write the words “The End” at the bottom of the last chapter, knowing full well they’ll likely be deleted by my publisher (few books or movies finish with “The End” anymore). Then I sit there staring at the screen awhile, marveling that somehow I’ve made it through that seemingly endless dark forest of the imagination once more, emerging on the other side battered and bruised, yet holding a finished manuscript in my hand.

Then I smile.

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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