The Big Idea: Sebastien de Castell

Author Sebastien de Castell dislikes knights — well, dislike may be too mild a word for it — and loves justice. Does that sound mildly contradictory to you? De Castell explains why it is not, and how his novel Traitor’s Blade aims for that justice through a new and unexpected class of hero.

SEBASTIEN de CASTELL:

I hate knights.

How is it that the biggest bunch of self-involved bullies in all of European history became the most prominent heroes in fantasy literature? These are the same brutish and brutal thugs who murdered, raped, and pillaged their way across Europe and the Middle East in the name of God (thanks a lot, Pope Urban II). Which pre-Madison Avenue public relations firm managed to convince us that knights – I mean, fucking  knights – were the paragons of honour and virtue in the Middle Ages?

Were there any  good knights? Sure. William Marshall, sometimes called the ‘Flower of Chivalry’ was probably an alright fellow, but he’s the exception that proves the rule. The vast majority of medieval knighthood was made up of noble-born thugs whose most positive contribution to society was due to the occasional accidental death that comes from charging at each other with long sticks on horseback for the entertainment of slack-jawed yokels.

The hell with knights. I’d rather write about heroes.

That little rant is what launched me into writing  Traitor’s Blade. I wanted characters that I could see myself rooting for–men and women without the advantages of wealth or military power who fought in service to an ideal rather than a particular church or nobleman or even their own personal honour. In other words, I wanted my main characters, Falcio, Kest, and Brasti, to be the opposite of knights.

I took my starting point from the  justices itinerant of England’s twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These were magistrates, appointed by the King and commanded to travel from village to village to hear cases, pass judgments, and ensure verdicts were upheld. A similar phenomenon existed in the United States, especially along the frontiers. In fact, Abraham Lincoln spent much of his early law career on horseback, travelling alongside a judge (the actual term ‘circuit court’ comes from the designated routes of these wandering magistrates.)

I was fascinated by how dangerous a life being a  justice itinerant might be. What happens when a baron or count decides he doesn’t like your verdict? Which way might the local knight or sheriff sway when his financial wellbeing is in the hands of the man you’re ruling against? Worst of all, what happens when the sovereign who appointed you dies? Those questions became the basis of the Greatcoats – the wandering magistrates of  Traitor’s Blade who dedicate their lives to bringing justice to those living under the capricious rule of the nobility only to be disbanded when the king who appointed them is deposed and killed.

With  Traitor’s Blade, I wanted to explore the struggle to keep alive an idealistic view of the law that is at odds with the very foundations of a feudal society. This meant recognizing that, while Falcio, Kest, and Brasti might be heroes to me, they wouldn’t be seen that way by the majority of the population in the world in which they live. Where the knights are admired and respected as military men in service to the will of the gods (which, miraculously, tends to align with the interests of the nobles who employ them), the Greatcoats are despised by the nobility and often reviled even by the peasantry who see them as having failed to bring the justice they promised.

Creating these anti-knights also meant thinking about tactical considerations. Where knights are designed for war, especially mounted combat, the Greatcoats are trained to be expert duellists. In a society like Tristia, the fictional country in which the novel is set, trial by combat is an idea that is ingrained into the culture. It made sense that the men and women who had to hear cases and render judgments might often need to uphold their verdict at the point of a sword. So while the knights wear heavy armour, the  Greatcoats wear, well,  coats – long, leather coats with thin bone plates sewn inside to provide some measure of defence against the weapons of their enemies while still being light enough to manoeuvre in for extended periods of time.  This also fit with the Greatcoats’ need to travel long distances at speed and be protected from the elements. Their coats contain dozens of hidden pockets with little tricks and traps and chemicals to help them survive the dangers faced by those whose role is in direct conflict with the powerful in society.

The more time I spent envisioning the Greatcoats, the more I found myself searching for other adaptations to the way laws are administered in a corrupted feudal society. Verdicts need to be remembered in order to be upheld and a large portion of the population in a country like Tristia would be illiterate. So the Greatcoats set their rulings to the tune of songs that people know – making it easier for people to remember. Verdicts also need people willing to do what’s necessary to uphold them, and so the gold buttons on the coats could be used to pay twelve men and women who would act as a kind of long-term jury and ensure the ruling was upheld after the Greatcoat left.

The process of developing a new societal role inside of a more traditional fantasy setting was without doubt one of the most fun parts of building the world of  Traitor’s Blade. I doubt that the historical  justices itinerant were much like my Greatcoats, just as the knights of European history have little in common with their modern portrayals. But I like to think that there was a spark of that idealism in those who once wandered the long roads in an effort to bring the machinery of justice to those who lived far outside the protection of the courts.

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Traitor’s Blade: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

29 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Sebastien de Castell

  1. There is an early encounter in the novel where your, ah, dislike of Knights is made abundantly clear, Sebastien! (Assuming that you attribute a protagonist’s POV to the author, but even so, the disdain drips off the page)

  2. You had me at “I hate knights.” Going on the to-be-acquired list right now. Looks like a barrel of fun!

    And I hope not all the disdain drips off every page. I want the disdain to be there for me to enjoy time and again. Nothing I hate like a puddle of disdain that has become separated from its book; it’s like a cake where the icing has run down.

    For those who truly loathe European aristocentric chivalry-and-honor BS, let me add there is one great anti-knight book you all should know — Geoffrey Trease’s Bows Against the Barons, which is Robin Hood the way he should have been, dammit. As a kid I remember carefully studying how a few smart, brave infantrymen could take down an armored, mounted thug …

    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1719399.Bows_Against_the_Barons

  3. And another stray thought: in some periods in China, some Mandarins had a similar function, basically as circuit judge-prosecutors. (the stories of Judge Dee are loosely based on some accounts of them). Their preferred weapon was the jian (a short straight sword that’s a bit like a big thin dagger); in the Mandarin version there was an unsharpened base of the blade to facilitate tricks of concealment and hand-changing (useful things when you’re set upon by multiple armored men and you are walking along in what’s basically a large-sleeved bathrobe); various Mandarin pais (what the Japanese call katas) are still part of some kung fu and tai chi chuan systems, and a lot of them are jian pais.

    So if you ever decide to send your Greatcoats from ficto-Europe to ficto-Asia, there’s a precedent for friends and allies they may find there.

  4. This sounds excellent! I studied medieval culture in grad school, and IIRC one of the reasons for the crusades was to send the knights somewhere – anywhere – other than Europe to keep them from slaughtering their neighbors’ peasants who were needed to harvest the crops and prevent them all from starving. I’ll be looking for “Traitor’s Blade” asap!

    (And @John Barnes, when are we going to get another Daybreak novel? They are some of the most absorbing books I’ve ever read! I had to keep stopping myself, in my real life, from thinking, “…well, that won’t matter anymore when Daybreak happens…” and remind myself it was just fiction!)

  5. This sounds very interesting. I recently slogged through Le Morte d’Arthur, and my primary takeaway was “why have these violent dickheads ever been considered the flower of medieval manhood?”

    Also: did not know that about the circuit courts and justices itinerant. Thanks for educating. :-)

  6. Jeff,

    Amazon does have a Kindle listing for it, but it won’t be out until 22 July. Oddly, it’s priced at $27 and is listed separately from the hardcopy versions. I’m guessing the price will drop at release or shortly thereafter. If not, I’ll just have to find a way to squeeze another book into my shelves, boxes, and stacks! Either way, I’m looking forward to getting my hands on it.

  7. And over at Barnes & Noble, the hardcover has a 25% discount, while the Nook version is priced at the full $26.99. Aargh. (Will suggest it, though, to the local head librarian, who also runs the writers workshop I participate in.)

  8. It does look interesting, but I’ll be waiting for the ePub version (iBooks or Smashwords)

  9. I finished the book a week or two ago. I really enjoyed it! It’s a bit on the short side, but it’s got a nice mix of encounters. The power level of the three main characters seems both incredibly overpowered and underpowered at the same time, which was a nice trick to pull off – in one scene, the viewpoint character wins a stunning victory against two very tough opponents, then gets sucker punched from behind and knocked out.

    I picked it up because one of the quotes implied it was “The Three Musketeers, but in a fantasy world”, which, for me, was like: SOLD. But while there are certainly places where I felt like it was making nods to the Three Musketeers (*the mysterious, beautiful woman in the carriage*), it was definitely not a rewrite of Dumas’ tale in a fantasy universe.

    And it’s definitely a low fantasy universe. There’s a little bit of magical hijinks that go on, but it’s done with a very light hand. Their magic protective greatcloaks? Yeah, you can just shoot right through them.

  10. Basically wanted to re-write “The Three Musketeers”….

    As “The Song of Roland” points out, Charlemagne’s army is fighting the Muslims in Spain, and this text was extant as early as 1140 AD. While everyone has a right to their opinion, and from my perspective the failed Crusades were a disaster as were the actual wars in the Holy Land, it is still a fact that knights evolved from a very real need to battle camel-jockeying Almohars from North Africa. The Pyrenees and Danube were the places where Europe held the Islamists back for 900 years. While I am no ignorant, and I am well aware of the substantial scientific, mathematical, and cultural contributions Islam has given the world, especially at the period noted, the one major historical item Islam has never answered for is slavery. While you complain about the ignorant, brutish, nasty knights, a cursory examination of the Dark Ages up to the Renaissance shows that Europe was essentially slave-free, except in far Eastern Europe due to requests by the Pope that Christians not make slaves of other Christians, and yet Islam used armies for centuries essentially made-up of castrated slaves such as the Janissary– eunuch horsemen from the 14th to 19th centuries. So while I am always pro-intellect, loving-kindness, and and a big Dumas fan, I can’t forget the slaving enemy that those brutish bullying knights fought, and be appreciative that the Muslims- just like Hitler or Stalin- couldn’t take Europe. My 2 cents, and by the way i always play a rogue at RPGs….

  11. Old Aggie, it’s about 3 projects (not all book length) back, but it’s much shorter than anything in the series so far, and basically a YA adventure. If you liked the 1st 3 you’ll probably like this one but might have to tolerate a happy ending.

  12. Knights had great PR because bards and troubadours needed to make a living — both figuratively and literally: Nobles (and thus, knights) were the ones most likely to pay them for praising their virtue and godliness in word and song, and the most likely to execute them for “insulting their honor”.

  13. Paul: Yes, that Falcio is something of a knight-ist. Brasti is even worse, though, and in book 2 that will become abundantly clear.

    John: Thanks for the tip on Bows Against The Barons – I’ll definitely check it out. Thanks also re: the mandarins as judges. I may just have to use that at some point…

    Old Aggie: I did some grad work in European History as well and yes, one of the reasons sometimes proposed for the first crusades was to deal with these ‘second sons’ of the nobility who were becoming troublesome at home. That being said, it’s unlikely to have been the primary cause – rather an inducement for some.

    re: Kindle pricing. Alas, as the author I neither set pricing nor timing of the e-book release. I doubt it’s going to actually be $27 (I say this without any actual information to the contrary – just my own assumption based on other ebook prices in the same category and based on the UK and Canadian ebook prices being lower than that.)

  14. Woild have gladly bought it right away… but will wait for an affordable ebook (preferably epub) version as well.

  15. Islam used armies for centuries essentially made-up of castrated slaves such as the Janissary– eunuch horsemen from the 14th to 19th centuries.

    The Janissaries weren’t eunuchs – in fact they were allowed to marry and their children were allowed to follow their fathers into the Corps – nor were they specifically horsemen (if they specialised in any particular arm, it was heavy dismounted archery and later musketry), nor did they generally make up the bulk of the Ottoman army at any point in their history. Like other elite semi-autonomous military units (the Knights Templar, the Knights of the Sword, the Praetorian Guard) they made the transition to a political force in the later Ottoman empire.

  16. The author mentions “men and women” a lot in the post; are any of the main characters women? The idea for the book sounds fascinating but I’m kind of tired of male-only main characters.

  17. It’s nice to know that Europe was essentially slave-free, because serfs were totally not slaves. I mean, they couldn’t leave the land where they were born, and if they did, they were hunted down, but they were totally not slaves. They didn’t even own the clothes on their backs, but they were totally not slaves. Thank you for providing us with this valuable insight, drunkenafficianado.

  18. I always hated knights/nobles too. But I realized that I hate kings even more, and the knights and nobles were the only ones capable of challenging them (often to become kings themselves, to be sure). And since things like Parliament and the Magna Carta worked out pretty well in the long run for us, I have to appreciate knights a little bit more now.

  19. This pulled me over from lurkerdom… great idea and it sounds fun – I’ll add myself to the line of those waiting for it to appear digitally and at a lower price.

    Regarding ‘The Song of Roland’, yes, well, if you believe the media spin…

    Charlemagne, expanding his empire, sent his idiot Nephew Roland at the head of an army to cross the Pyrenees. That Islam had expanded there – and been stopped north in what later would become France – was a great excuse for conquest.

    So Rollo comes down the pass and meets… the Basques. Most definitely Christians. And he tells them, we’re here to liberate you and would you please join my uncle’s empire… or else (much to the chagrin of some of his officers). The Basques, who didn’t feel the urge to be liberated, as these were already independent free states, much less to join in anyone’s empire, sent back a terse ‘Nuts!’. In Basque, of course, with a Latin translation.

    Roland assaulted and conquered rather forcefully a couple of cities, wasting the countryside, etc, etc. He got a bloody nose once or twice and Basque armies mustered against him.

    And yes, there were Arabs in those armies, or Moors rather, part levies and part mercenaries – quite a few Arabs and Moors fighting in the Crusades’ European side later on too, for monetary and/or political reasons.

    Right. Roland decided to head back for the safety of the northern side of the Pyrenees, having at least a victory to show for. Here’s where opinions diverge. He marches into the defile of Roncesvaux without scouting. Well-meaning people say he was in a hurry and he gambled he could get through before the Basques caught up. The more cynical version says that while Rollo was certainly running for it, he wasn’t doing it fast enough, and anyway he was a clueless twerp.

    And the Basques were waiting for him above Roncesvaux and payback is a mother (old jungle proverb). The rest is the spin doctors of Aachen – the troubadours someone mentioned before.

  20. I’m not a huge fan of fantasy but I am a huge fan of medieval history. You can blame the Plantagenets for the knightly reputation. Specifically, Edward III and his son (also Edward) “The Black Prince.” These guys had an obsession with the Arthurian Legends and did all in their power to co-opt the Welsh origins of the story. They gave us “The Order of the Garter” and made chivalry, military expertise, and knightly virtue popular with the nobility. No one cared what the peasants thought, but even the peasants dug the Arthurian stories.

    Feudalism sucks for everyone but the nobility, so I don’t fault these guys for being jerks. That is a judgment from the context of our times, not theirs. They were just doing what they knew. The King, appointed by God Himself to rule, is what everyone believed.

  21. Oh yes. Screw the knights and the nobles.

    In my corner of Spain (well, the corner where my family comes from) there are almost no castles.

    This is due to the “Revolta dos Irmandiños”,the “Little Brothers Revolt”, a war in which the town people basically went out and fought to destroy all the noblemen’s castles they could get their hands on, because the fucking things were just bases for roaming bands of knights to steal from all and deliver to the local noblemen, Who of course said that no, it was just bandits, you know, nothing to do with me, but didnt fool anybody.

    Of course that ended with all of the Irmandiños leaders dead, but then the Galician nobles backed the wrong pretender to the Crown and Isabel la Católica, upon gaining power, forbade them to rebuilt the fallen fortresses.

  22. Read this a month or two ago (on my wife’s earnest and hearty recommendation) and absolutely loved it. Best new thing in fantasy since Joe Abercrombie.

    Can’t wait for book two!

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