Exclusive Interview: “Crucible Of Chaos” Author Sebastien de Castell


With Play Of Shadows, swashbuckling fantasy writer Sebastien de Castell is kicking off a new series called The Court Of Shadows, which is itself a spin-off from his Greatcoats series.

But before he does that, he has a prelude to present: Crucible Of Chaos (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), which, as he explains in the following email interview, has “plots and schemes” that are “harbingers of what will unfold in the main series.”

Sebastien de Castell Crucible Of Chaos

To start, what is Crucible Of Chaos about, and what kind of a world is it set in?

Crucible Of Chaos is a blend of swashbuckling fantasy with Gothic mystery.

The tale begins with Estevar Borros, a travelling magistrate coming to the end of a six-month-long judicial circuit which has left him both weary and wounded from a failed duel. His last stop is the legendary Abbey of Isola Sombra on a tiny island separated from the mainland by a causeway that often floods, cutting it off for days at a time. There, he finds the abbot who summoned him has been murdered, the monks split off into rival factions on the verge of open warfare against one another, and accusations of demon worship being levelled by a local nobleman looking for an excuse to invade the abbey and take its riches for himself.

Surrounded by potential enemies and murderers, Estevar’s only allies are his cantankerous mule and a mysterious young woman claiming to want to help him yet hiding secrets of her own.

Suffice it to say, this is going to be far from an easy case for Estevar.

Where did you get the idea for Crucible Of Chaos? What inspired it?

When I wrote the original quartet of Greatcoats novels, the story was both epic in scope and focused tightly around Falcio val Mond, the idealistic First Cantor of the Greatcoats. While that made for a successful series that I was delighted to write, and that readers all over the world still write to me about on a daily basis, the focus on Falcio meant I wasn’t able to explore the other travelling, sword-fighting magistrates of the Greatcoats.

So, two years ago, I wrote a collection of short stories published as Tales Of The Greatcoats, Vol. 1, which featured other lead characters going about the strange and dangerous work of investigating cases across Tristia, rendering verdicts and occasionally having to duel to enforce them.

One of those Greatcoats was Estevar Duerisi Valejan Borros, sometimes called The King’s Crucible, and the one magistrate whose expertise was investigating apparent cases of the supernatural. I had so much fun writing Estevar’s three stories in the collection that, months later, while in France visiting the famous medieval island monastery of Mont St. Michel, I decided this strange, isolated abbey was the perfect setting for Estevar’s first novel: proper Greatcoats mystery with plenty of swashbuckling danger and intriguing investigation.

And is there a reason why this features “the most heroic mule ever to appear in print” as opposed to “the most heroic chicken ever to appear in print” or “the most heroic wiener dog ever to appear in print”?

When I’m writing a novel, I find that relationships are as vital to bringing the story to life as the characters themselves. Falcio wouldn’t be nearly as fascinating a protagonist without Kest and Brasti at his side, bantering with him and pointing out his many flaws. Kellen, the main character of the Spellslinger series, would be just another somewhat whiny, confused teenager were it not for Ferius guiding him towards a better version of himself and Reichis, the thieving, sometimes murderous squirrel cat getting Kellen into trouble wherever they go.

With Crucible Of Chaos, however, I needed Estevar (and the reader investigating alongside him) to feel isolated — as if there’s no one we can really trust on this strange, haunted island. But Estevar is a talker; he thinks aloud and often in rather extravagant monologues. He needed someone with him that he could talk to and trust. Right from the opening chapters, I found myself writing Estevar and his mule, Imperious, in a kind of partnership of equals, with Estevar often talking through his thinking with Imperious, and the mule periodically grunting in a way that seemed to affirm or contradict his rider’s thinking. The more I wrote Imperious into the chapters of the book, the more their relationship became both endearing to me and a nice balance against some of the darker themes of the novel.

As to why a heroic mule as opposed to a chicken or wiener dog, well, Paul, you clearly haven’t met enough mules to recognize that they are innately heroic beasts — and surprisingly good detectives.

I think Sherlock Cluck and his sidekick Nathan might disagree, but let’s move on.

As you said, Crucible Of Chaos is a swashbuckling fantasy novel with Gothic mystery…

Broadly speaking, I think of myself as a writer of swashbuckling fantasy. I’ve never been what’s often referred to as an epic or high fantasy writer. While wars and gods and magic swords sometimes figure in my books, the focus for me has always been on characters who aren’t the chosen ones or possessed of great power or status. My lineage as a writer comes less from epics like The Lord Of The Rings and more from the swashbuckling adventure stories of authors like Raphael Sabatini that then moved to the silver screen with the films of Errol Flynn or the wonderful Princess Bride. I like a good rapier duel more than a giant battle with dragons and giant eagles, and I’ll take a flawed but ingenious detective over a future king or messiah any day.

Now, unless I’ve miscounted, Crucible Of Chaos is your fifteenth novel. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Crucible but not on anything else you’ve written?

What makes Crucible different from all the others is the influence of golden-age detectives on the story. The moment he first appeared on the page in the novelette, “Dance Of The Chamberlain,” Estevar revealed himself to be a sort of swashbuckling Hercule Poirot with a fascination for the supernatural. That unusual heritage made for a fun shift in tone from my previous Greatcoats books and short stories. I quite love writing Estevar, so I suspect we’ll see more of him (and Imperious, the mule, of course) in future.

What about non-literary influences; was Crucible Of Chaos influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?

There’s definitely a hint of The X-Files in the Estevar stories. Unlike most classic detectives, he lives in a world where the supernatural does sometimes influence human affairs. Beneath his cunning investigative demeanor (and occasional pomposity), there’s a touch of Fox Mulder to him, always searching for the true nature of seemingly magical and mythical forces, and secretly hoping they’ll reveal something worth believing in.

Sebastien de Castell Crucible Of Chaos

While Crucible Of Chaos is an offshoot of your Greatcoats series, it’s also the first book you’re releasing in a new series called Court Of Shadows. But it’s actually not the first book. The first book is Play Of Shadows, which will be out April 2nd, 2024; Crucible is a prequel. Hence its subtitle: Court Of Shadows: Prelude. When does Play take place in relation to Crucible?

The entire Court Of Shadows series takes place roughly a year after the end of the Greatcoats Quartet.

However, one doesn’t need to have read those books to dive into the new series; one of the things I enjoyed about writing Crucible Of Chaos was providing an entry point into the world of the Greatcoats and the hidden threats coming to Tristia that new readers could dive into.

And why is Crucible Of Chaos a prelude to the Court Of Shadows series and not the first book in it?

I wanted Crucible Of Chaos to be its own story, set in the world of the Greatcoats but not tied directly into the events of the upcoming Court Of Shadows series. The plots and schemes Estevar uncovers inside that troubled abbey of Isola Sombra are harbingers of what will unfold in the main series, but not dependent on them.

Most of all, though, when it came time to publish the book, it simply felt like a prelude to Court Of Shadows, and sometimes writers have to trust their instincts on these things.

What else can you tell us about the Court Of Shadows series? Is it going to be an ongoing series, a set number of books like a trilogy…?

Court Of Shadows is somewhat different from recent fantasy series in that it’s not structured as a one giant story that’s simply cut into instalments. Instead, each of the first three books in the series works as a stand-alone story. We’ll meet new heroes in each one as they come face to face with the multi-faceted conspiracies threatening their country and its people. The final book in the first quartet will see those heroes come together for the first time to form an alliance against these shadowy forces.

As a fantasy enthusiast myself, I’m not always keen on being trapped inside a series. I especially hate discovering a new book in a store only to realize it’s the second or third in a series and the first one is sold out. So, I wanted readers to be able to jump into the first three books of The Court Of Shadows in whatever order they chose.

So, do you know yet what the other books will be called and when they’ll be out?

After Play Of Shadows comes out April 2, 2024, we’ll see Our Lady Of Blades the following year, and the third book — whose working title is Gamble & Gaze — will come out after that. The quartet will end with a sort of “team-up” book which I’m very excited about as it’ll bring together all my favorite Greatcoat characters.

Earlier I asked if Crucible Of Chaos had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Chaos and the Court Of Shadows series could work as a movie series, or a TV show, or a game?

I spend entirely too much of my time lately in discussions with producers, directors, agents and lawyers about when and how The Greatcoats and Spellslinger will be turned into movies and / or television series to be able to answer that question. My brain is kind of fried on the intricacies of studio’s needing every imaginable right under the sun and wanting to have live stage shows of their movies and theme parks and merchandise and… Oh, I think I need a nap now.

Okay, back from my nap. Uh…yeah, Crucible Of Chaos will make a terrific movie. And a video game. And a theme park. And a set of action figures. And…and…I need another nap.

Okay, so then if someone wanted to adapt these books into some movies or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Estevar and the other main characters?

Oooh, I’d love to see [The Bear‘s] Oliver Platt as Estevar. He’s got a terrifically commanding presence on the screen which I’d enjoy for Estevar’s pontificating moments of deduction.

So, is there anything else people need to know about Crucible Of Chaos?

I’ve been listening to Joe Jameson’s performance for the audiobook, and it’s absolutely stellar. Joe’s narration is like having an entire cast of actors creating a film inside your mind. But also get the e-book. And the hardback. Oh, and there are three different special edition hardbacks. Basically, just clear a shelf and get them all.

Sebastien de Castell Crucible Of Chaos

Finally, if someone enjoys Crucible Of Chaos, which of your other novels would you suggest they read while waiting for Play Of Shadows to come out?

If they haven’t read Traitor’s Blade, the first book of the Greatcoats series, then that’s a good one to jump into after Crucible Of Chaos. It’ll give some insight into how different Falcio and Estevar see their roles as travelling, dueling magistrates, which to me is a big part of the fun of the Greatcoats.


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