Well, a few posts ago, we were excited because we had figured out our genre. Fantasy!

Not so fast.


It turns out “Toru: Wayfarer Returns” is actually something called “Multicultural Fiction.”

Or at least the nice folks over at the eLit Awards think so, for they have bestowed upon “Toru” the 2016 Bronze Medal in Multicultural Fiction!

Perhaps because it is set in Japan and is a First Contact story of Japan’s meeting with the West?

This came as something of a surprise, as we somehow missed the notifying email and don’t recall applying in the first place. In any case, this lovely certificate showed up in the mail over the weekend and caused quite a bit of excitement. Both my husband and my dog were quite impressed.


However, the award triggered some soul-searching and self assessment that led to the following conclusion:

I messed up the genre of my debut novel.


“What do you mean?” I hear you cry!

So…here’s the problem. Genre is very important…to genre readers.

Readers of literary fiction are looking for amazing writing and literary excellence and books that leave them with new insight into the human condition in some way. They are not very concerned about genre, if a non-MFA may opine on a subject she knows nothing about. In exchange for writing very well, literary fiction authors face fewer constraints on their story structure and forms. They also seem to produce whiny, angst-ridden characters, a tendency I do not understand but do observe.

In contrast, readers of GENRE fiction (science fiction, fantasy, romance, bear-shape-shifter erotica, thrillers, mystery, historical military fiction and so on) are acutely interested in the genre, and finding stories to read in their favorite genres that both meet genre expectations and innovate on them somehow to make them “fresh.” In other words, they want to read the same type of stories over and over again but new and fresh each time. So, genre-specific tropes and structures but new and improved. And they get very outraged if genre expectations are not met. They also get outraged if the story is “same old, same old.” So being clear and consistent about genre while at the same time “keeping it fresh” is rather important if you don’t want outraged readers. And that is what I messed up, for “Toru” is a genre-bending mixture in a world that likes its categories clear.

This question of genre keeps coming up. Some Amazon reviews wrestle with genre (links to full reviews under reviewer names):

Steampunk vs. alternate history:

Cool alternative-history yarn of yester-century Nippon, a promising steampunk-energized start.” — Kirkus Reviews

“Nominally, Toru: Wayfarer Returns is a steampunk book – at least, that’s sort of how it’s being marketed. And in many ways, that makes sense; it’s a book about 1800’s era Japan, in which a young man who has traveled America for several years returns to his homeland and attempts to warn his people about the pending arrival – and possible threat – of the American people. More than that, he attempts to rally a defense, forcing the famously rigid, traditional country to embrace new technology and inventions – trains, dirigibles, and more. In other words, there’s a lot of steampunk there, even if it’s a more mellow, grounded version of it.

But honestly, focusing on just the steampunk aspects of Toru sells it short, because more accurately, this is an alternate history book, one in which Japan heeds the warnings and threats posed by the outside world and slowly awakens to face those intruders. Indeed, rather than being pure wish fulfillment where Japan is suddenly awesome and formidable, Sorensen lets her plot unwind slowly, as the lords come around to these new ideas, and attempt to turn the nation’s tide through politics and persuasion.

It all ends up being more of a drama than an action book, and honestly, that only makes it all the stronger of a book.” — Josh Mauthe

“There will probably be some debate as to exactly what genre this book belongs. Is it Alternate Historical Fiction? Is it Steampunk? Is it somehow both? Or neither? My answer to those questions is that it is all of the above. With the addition of dirigibles, it clearly enters the realm of Steampunk, but since it is set in an actual period of our world’s history, this takes it away from the Steampunk genre and instead into the realm of alternate historical fiction. All in all, the genre does not really matter. It is the story that matters and the story is superb.” — AmiesBookReviews

“{Sorensen] offers an alternative history where real Japan meets steampunk.” — Gloria Piper

“Set in Japan in the 1850’s and announcing the opening of the country to the world, this is a novel with a “futuristic” edge, that is a steampunk novel. For the ones not familiar with the genre, steampunk is a branch of sci-fi, a historical cyberpunk. Technology is important, but in its 19th century context. Hence the “steam” prefix, which evokes the machinery of the Victorian era. If inventions get slightly anachronistic here, it’s not in their historical context but in their geographical context.” — Marie-Jo Fortis

It is alternate history and techno-fantasy story set in 1850s Japan, on the eve of Japan’s collision with the West.” — Christian Abiodun Ibiloye

“Ms. Sorensen has written a fine addition to the rather scarce body of historical fiction based on Japan (in English), and then made it an alternative history and somewhat steampunk-ish to boot.” — Charles F. Kartman

“It’s an enjoyable read and an interesting alternative history and I think a lot of people will enjoy this book.” — Josie

“Although marketed as ‘steam punk,’ this is more an alternative history novel, a ‘what if’ Japan had been able to fight off the Americans back in 1852.” — Amazon Customer

An ambitious and immersive alt-history…The cover promised a degree of samurai violence and dirigibles (a curious mainstay of steampunk travel). Instead: sewing machine. I really had a hard time getting past this for a while, even though I understood its pragmatism and the effectiveness such a “simple” machine could have on transforming an agrarian country into an industrial powerhouse….Contrary to the action implied by the cover, the story is more methodical…. it’s probable the people this alternate history will offend don’t do much reading anyway.” — Franz Finklebein


You get the idea. I thought I was writing a steampunk novel, made fresh by its samurai setting. It appears however, that I have written an alternate history. Or a fantasy. Or multicultural fiction. So fair warning to steampunk fans–it has dirigibles. And samurai. And generous helpings of history and Japanese culture. But it may or may not be steampunk. Folks who enjoy history seem to like it a lot, although they are mystified by dirigibles.

Fiction. It is fiction.

Anyway, winning awards is lovely! Even when they are confusing!


Written by Stephanie R. Sorensen

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