The Secret History of the Greatcoats

It’s under one month until the publication of the long-awaited, much-anticipated, critically-acclaimed, abundantly-loved Saint’s Blood, the third in Sebastien de Castell’s amazing Greatcoats trilogy. To kick off the countdown and entice you to #JointheGreatcoats, here Sebastien reveals The Secret History of the Greatcoats.
Saint's Blood cover
A passing mention of twelfth-century English justices, a warm coat on a cold night of filming, the swift-boating of a political candidate, a drunken tirade and a particularly bad fencing match . . . what could possibly connect these completely disparate elements? The answer is that they all combined to help create the world of the Greatcoats.
It’s hard to describe how thrilled I’ve been at the reception the Greatcoats series has received, both critically and from the wider reading public. I honestly never expected to find such success with my poor, benighted travelling magistrates and the desperate duels they got themselves into – so I never expected to have to answer the question, ‘So, tell us how you came up with your world.’
The Sting of the Blade
I never set out to become a competitive fencer, so it never really bothered me to only be ‘pretty good’. On the other hand, in the middle of a bout, when the blood gets hot and you feel your opponent’s point slip past your guard to deliver a thrust to your chest and then you hear the teeth-grinding sound of the buzzer signalling that you’ve lost . . . the frustration is almost unbearable. Why did I miss that parry? Why didn’t I train harder? Why didn’t I have a better strategy for the match? Why am I not good enough?
There’s something exquisitely painful about those moments, and the way that something so small as a friendly fencing match can make you question yourself at such a fundamental level. It’s enough to make you really wonder how bad it would feel if you had devoted your entire life to a single art or a single cause, only to fail spectacularly. It was in that moment that I found Falcio val Mond, First Cantor of the Greatcoats.
Falcio’s entire life was built around becoming one of the legendary travelling magistrates known as the Greatcoats. He studied every form of fencing, mastered the Laws and gave every part of himself to the cause, only to have his King be executed as a tyrant and the Greatcoats disbanded as traitors. It’s hard not to feel for a guy like that.
The Justices Itinerant
At university I studied archaeology and history. That’s where I encountered a passing reference to the mediaeval itinerant judges – these were magistrates sent by the English king who would follow a year-long circuit along towns and villages, hearing cases and delivering verdicts.
Imagine how fragile a system of justice that would create: how simple would it be for some local lord or baron who didn’t like the outcome of the case to arrange for the judge in question to suffer from a fatal accident, or to be found dead at the hands of apparent bandits, or, should the reach of the king no longer be feared, to simply murder them in front of the entire town?
That idea led to the Greatcoats: the order of travelling, sword-wielding magistrates who had to be able not only to go from town to town, investigate cases and render decisions, but, as often as not, be ready to fight a duel to enforce their verdict.
A Damn Fine Coat
My brother once gave me a long coat, which I took with me whenever I was on set. As an actor you tend to spend a lot of time waiting between takes, and on exterior night shoots in particular you can get very cold and tired. My coat was big enough that I could wear it over whatever other clothing I was in, and it had so many pockets, large and small, that I could hide away anything I needed between shots. It also looked (I thought, anyway) very cool.
Knights have their armour and livery, giving them both practical and symbolic protection. My travelling magistrates needed something equally impressive, but better suited to their purpose, so the coat my brother gave me became the inspiration for those worn by Falcio, Kest and Brasti. But their coats would have to have hidden bone plates sewn inside the leather, like a kind of flexible armour, to protect them, as well as little tricks and traps and medicines to keep them alive on long journeys or to help them get out of sticky situations. Of course, they tend to get into those situations frequently, as the world they live in is not a nice place.
The Mythologies of American Politics
When I was first developing Traitor’s Blade, it had become common practice in American politics to take whatever your enemy’s most noble attribute was and twist it into something vile. John Kerry (whether you liked him as a presidential candidate or not) was a genuine war hero who volunteered in Vietnam even though he disagreed with the war itself. During the 2004 election, his opponents twisted his record to the point where nearly half the population thought he’d been a coward during the war and had lied about his service. This wasn’t because the American people are stupid, but because some very, very smart people had perfected the art of creating new mythologies within American political life.
The fact that this has become almost an accepted political practice these days gave me the inspiration for Tristia: a country so broken by the weight of its own rulers’ corruption that those who risked their lives to bring some measure of justice to the common people could become reviled as cowards and traitors.
Drunken Louts and Time-Honoured Orators
I used to make my living as a musician, travelling from town to town in a cover band, playing whatever songs the audience would tolerate and doing our best not to get beaten up between sets – hardly the glamorous life of the rock star I’d anticipated when I sat down to learn my first Beatles song. And yet there’s something that travelling bar bands get to experience that almost no one else does, to hear the different sounds of how people in different places talk when they’re out drinking: their guard down, their voices are true to who they are when they think the only other people listening are equally inebriated. As odd as it sounds, it was in these places that I came to understand the writerly concept of ‘point of view’.
When we talk to each other in moments of candour, we don’t speak of the world in holistic, carefully thought-out terms. We talk about through the terribly narrow – and wonderfully human – lens of our own experience. That’s why Falcio might happily discuss the permutations of duelling or the eccentricities of the law, but he’ll never go into some drawn-out explanation of the inner workings of magic. To him, magic is an annoying and dangerous force that, like most of the world, seems to operate on the simple premise that those with money have it and those without don’t. ‘I hate magic’ is all he’ll tell the reader, spoken as plainly and tersely as one might say, ‘I hate cops’ or ‘I hate politicians’.
Beyond that, though, there is a wonderful set of cadences to be found in drunken speech. I sometimes get asked how I came up with the odd naming of the Saints in the Greatcoats books: ‘Saint Anlas-who-remembers-the world’ and ‘Saint Birgid-who-weeps-rivers’. The answer is simple: think back to a time when you heard someone drunkenly talking about their in-laws or co-workers: it’s never ‘Frank, my father-in-law’ or ‘Martha from Accounting’, but rather, ‘Frank-who-enlisted-in-the-army-because-he’s-so-much-holier-than-thou’ or ‘Martha who-won’t-can’t-lend-you-a-nickel-without-an-expense-form-signed-in-triplicate’.
I love those odd ways of speaking that the English language seems to not only afford but to actively encourage.
Of course, there’s so much more to draw from than drunken louts in bars. I love the arcs and cadences of great speeches, from the Saint Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V, to the Periclean Funeral Oration to the sermons of Sunday televangelists . . . there are so many forms of brilliant oratory to bring into the drama of a fantasy novel. It’s no wonder Kest sometimes asks Falcio at the beginning of a battle, ‘Are you going to give a speech now? Because it’s getting dark and we should really get started with the fighting-to-the-death part.’
The Strange Magic of the Ordinary World
So now you know some of the secret origins of the Greatcoats and the world they inhabit. I hope you enjoy the series and its heroes, its moments of terrible tragedy and those of triumph. If it should turn out to be a world that entices you, that draws you in with its eccentricities and characters, then I hope you’ll see that even its most fantastical workings and people are, in fact, all around us.
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