A Chat with Steve Bein, Author of DAUGHTER OF THE SWORD and YEAR OF THE DEMON
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. He was born in Oak Park, Illinois, a near west suburb of Chicago. His first career as a perpetual student took him to universities in Illinois, Germany, Japan, and Hawai‘i. That all culminated in a PhD in philosophy from the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. Today Steve is a visiting professor of Asian philosophy and Asian history at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he also teaches courses in philosophy and science fiction. His other academic interests include bioethics, which led him to a short stint as a visiting researcher at the Mayo Medical School, and environmental philosophy, which led him to see polar bears in Canada and penguins and whales in Antarctica. His more recent travels have taken him to historical sites and art museums around the Mediterranean and to wildlife preserves all across southern Africa.
Steve’s first novel, DAUGHTER OF THE SWORD, came out last year, and the follow-up, YEAR OF THE DEMON, just came out. We had a chance to talk with him about it…
Kristin Centorcelli: You have a very rich and varied background, and your new novel, Year of the Demon, just came out, but have you always wanted to write fiction? What inspired you to write Daughter of the Sword, the 1st book in the series?
Steve Bein: I guess I’ve been writing fiction for as long as I’ve been able to write. I think a lot of kids start that way; storytelling is an essential element in their lives. I don’t know what that says about those of us who never outgrow that, but I do think that fiction ought to be approached with a certain sense of playfulness. It should be something you get to do, not something you have to do.
As for Daughter of the Sword, it started as a collection of samurai stories—tributes, really, to all the samurai movies I used to watch over and over again, everything from highbrow Kurosawa films to splatterfests like Zatoichi and Lone Wolf and Cub. Once I had three or four stand-alone episodes, I decided to tie them all in together—reminiscent of The Red Violin, you could say—and suddenly seven hundred years of Japanese history culminated in a 21st century police thriller with historical interludes.
SB: Like Daughter of the Sword, Year of the Demon is episodic, this time tracking just one of the Inazuma blades, and also a mask with an arcane link to the sword. And as in Daughter, Mariko takes the leading role. She’s got a promotion, a new partner, a new assignment in Narcotics, and a bounty on her head. The bloodiest yakuza butcher in Tokyo has a contract out on her. He offers her one way out. He’s a collector of expensive art and historical artifacts, and an item was stolen from his collection: an iron mask. If Mariko can get it back, she’ll be a free woman, but it turns out the mask thief is far more dangerous than anyone could have guessed. And the mask itself is even worse: it twists the wearer’s will, causing a deep-seated need to destroy. We get to learn how it became that way through the stories of Daigoro, a 16th century samurai (and a fan favorite from Daughter of the Sword) and Kaida, a one-armed pearl diver (who’s almost a Cinderella story, if Cinderella had a psychopathic stepsister and a ninja master instead of a fairy godmother).
KC: How would you say Mariko has grown since the first novel?
SB: Her first chapter in Daughter of the Sword shows her in the midst of a drug bust gone wrong. Her first chapter in Year of the Demon is a drug bust too, and we get to see just how far she’s come along as a cop. Her sword training has brought her discipline and patience—not in great supply, but she’s making progress. She has a partner now, and a commanding officer she can respect, so we get to see her interact on an interpersonal level we haven’t seen before. In Daughter she was without allies; in Demon she’s building a team, a support network. But she’s also far more vulnerable than before. I can’t explain why without spoiling the climax of Daughter of the Sword, but Mariko’s self-confidence is shattered. For a woman who was already fighting an uphill battle against misogyny and chauvinism, this is much more than a chink in the armor; her armor has fallen apart and she’s trying to hold the pieces together.
KC: What do you enjoy most about writing the series, and fantasy in general?
SB: World-building is a lot of fun. I’m always on the hunt for exactly the right detail to carry across not just the setting but also the emotional tone of the scene. You need to do that in any kind of fiction, but in fantasy fiction you can take it to new heights. You can do what I’m doing in these books, trying to stay as true to life as possible and keeping the fantastical elements light, so they feel real. Or you can go to the opposite end of the spectrum and invest everything in the landscape with magic and meaning. In high fantasy everything is possible, which means everything can propel the story forward.
SB: Plotter all the way. I always have been, but with the Fated Blades books it’s especially important, because all of these storylines have to intertwine in just the right way. If I reveal something too early in Kaida’s story, it spoils something in Mariko’s story, but if I reveal it too late, then maybe something in Daigoro’s story doesn’t make sense. So I have to outline everything in advance, then write each storyline as if it’s a stand-alone piece, then cut them all up into pieces and stitch them back together.
KC: What would you like to see readers take away from the series?
SB: Characters to love and characters to hate, in a story that won’t let go. Halfway through, I want you to be thinking about that friend of yours who has to read this too so you have someone to talk to about it.
And I want to leave you with something to talk about, something bigger than the story or the characters. I see fiction as another medium for doing philosophy—that is, another medium for raising questions and exploring possible answers. In Year of the Demon, all of my protagonists have tough moral choices to make, and they might not make them the way you want them to. I hope some readers get mad at them for making the wrong decision. I hope some readers say they’d have made the same decision but for totally different reasons. Above all, I hope to get people thinking beyond the scope of the story itself.
KC: What are some of the biggest influences on your writing?
SB: Living in Japan certainly was an enormous influence. I was fascinated with Japan long before I moved there, and there were storytellers that fanned the flames of that fascination, people like Akira Kurosawa, James Clavell, William Gibson, Frank Miller. And of course Japanese philosophy has been very influential for me. I started reading books on Zen around 13 or 14, and took up studying Asian philosophy in earnest in college. That was when I started my martial arts training too, so that got me reading even more deeply, along avenues my professors weren’t necessarily following themselves. Then came graduate school, where I guess you could say I dedicated my life to Japanese philosophy. That’s been my profession ever since. And there’s no doubt that immersing myself in that intellectual tradition immersed me in the culture, the language, the history. I certainly couldn’t have written the Fated Blades books without that background.
KC: What’s next for you?
SB: Book three! No title as of yet, but the manuscript is underway. Mariko’s back, Daigoro’s back, and Kaida’s back. Rumors surface of a fourth Inazuma blade. Daigoro goes to war, and war comes home to Mariko.
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