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[GUEST POST] What Genre Is This, Anyway? by Steve Bein

Steve Bein (pronounced “Bine”) is an author, philosopher, professor, climber, photographer, translator, and world traveler. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Interzone, Writers of the Future, and in international translation. Daughter of the Sword, his first novel, is already being met with critical acclaim and is due out this October. Find him online at

In an interview with Terry Gross, Quentin Tarantino said something really interesting of the way he writes dialogue: “It’s not poetry but it’s kind of like it. It’s not song lyrics but it’s kind of like song lyrics. It’s not rap but it’s kind of like rap. And it’s not stand-up comedy but it is kind of like stand-up comedy. It’s all those things together.”

Daughter of the Sword is kind of like that. When my agent was shopping it out to editors, she described it as a “thriller with supernatural elements.” Publisher’s Weekly described it as a “blend of urban and historical fantasy.” Another reviewer described it as “part police procedural and part historical fantasy.” So which is it? Urban fantasy? Historical fantasy? Police procedural? Thriller?

Yes. And historical fiction too, as long as we’re sticking labels on things. So what’s the deal?

My most important protagonist, Mariko, is a Tokyo cop. I find the border between police procedural and thriller to be pretty fuzzy, as is the border between police procedural and mystery, but if your main character is a police detective, people are going to put your book in at least one of those categories.

A fair amount of the book takes place not in Mariko’s time but in Japan’s past, where, among other things, we see the murder weapon she’s tracking down has been used to kill people for nearly 1,000 years. Thriller again, and clearly historical fiction as well. Two other storylines, one in the 1500s and one in WWII, also anchor the book in historical fiction.

And did I mention the swords in the book are cursed? Now we can put urban fantasy and historical fantasy on the nametag. I prefer a pretty light hand with my magic, so the swords aren’t very magical. They don’t shoot fire or have telepathic powers or anything, but Mariko’s murder weapon is possessed by a geisha slain on its edge. One thing that’s interesting to me is that from Mariko’s perspective—and from our perspective as well—the difference between historical fiction and historical fantasy turns on whether or not that geisha really does live on in the sword. But from the perspective of the samurai characters there’s no difference between historical fiction and historical fantasy. They would have found haunted swords to be entirely believable.

Here’s the thing: genres are artificial distinctions. That’s not to say they’re not helpful. I’ve been a sci fi and fantasy fan all my life, and for many years when I walked into a bookshop I’d walk past everything else and go straight to the SF/F section. I’ve broadened my horizons considerably since then, but still, it helps to know what I’m looking at when I walk into the store. That’s where genre came from: to help publishers and booksellers find the right customers, and to help readers figure out what to read.

And then I go and write a genre-bending book that no bookseller can find a shelf for. There isn’t one shelf for Daughter of the Sword. If you like cop thrillers, I think you’ll like this book. If you like historical fiction, I think you’ll like this book. If you like a twist of fantasy in your thriller or your historical fiction, I think you’re really going to like this book. Daughter of the Sword is equally at home on all of those shelves.

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