One of the joys of reviewing books is coming across exciting, new writing. Iona Datt Sharma was kind enough to send me a review copy of their short story collection Not For Use in Navigation. It is full of wit, staggeringly subtle insight and exquisite prose. These are stories that foreground queer and genderfluid people, and focus on liminal spaces.
At EasterCon I was on a panel with Charlie Stross. We were talking about how rarely stories deal with those behind the scenes people who in real life make change happen. Charlie’s point was that in a Joseph Campbell-based tradition of story-telling, we want to read about heroes. That mode of story-telling doesn’t lend itself well to ensemble casts or the acknowledgement of the necessity of collaborative effort. But Datt Sharma puts that to the lie. Every person is the hero of their own story, and Datt Sharma tells stories that elevate the mundane and use it to illustrate the profound.
The collection opens with Light, Like A Candle Flame. This is the story of a woman whose job it is to persuade colonists on a new world that they all need to agree to build a sewage treatment plant, because their current arrangements will not support the growing colony. Not the most exciting of topics, but in Datt Sharma’s hands this becomes a meditation on leaving home, the tension between past and future and how human beings living in communities work out how they live together.
The bathos is most present in Alnwick, the story of a civil servant working on the UK’s space programme. Disturbed from a party by an accident that has left many people badly injured, Meg has to deal with the immediate aftermath and ensure the planned space launch will go ahead as intended. I felt deeply seen by this novel. Meg does radical work at the cutting edges of technological development, but is seen by her girlfriend Deepika’s activist friends as boring and conventional. Meg’s story is the heroism of hard work and complex problem solving, and a competent woman doing her job well. The image of her briefing her Minister in a party dress and snow boots sums this up for me: glamour mixed with practicality. Meg is the ultimate public servant, quietly doing radical world-changing work that those around her underestimate.
These themes continue in Flightcraft. Talitha Cawthorne is a flight engineer scarred by the experience of war. Trying to find a path for her future, Talitha finds herself drawn to a nearby airbase, and the friendship of a civilian flight engineer called Cat. Talitha was someone forced to do things that others might find unethical during the war, but in the name of saving others. These are hard and difficult choices that are not ones that most people have the ability to make. Flightcraft asks who are we to judge from a position of partial knowledge when we are the unwitting beneficiaries.
The collection also includes a novella called Quarter Days. It follows two magical practitioners, and their new apprentice, who are caught up in the reaction to a railway disaster. One of them, Ned, is held responsible for the accident because he was one of those that worked on the railway signalling equipment. But the investigation into the incident begins to show their may be another cause. This is a story about the impact of migration on a city. Datt Sharma doesn’t shy away from the bigotry and Othering of those migrant communities, but this is a story about how those people can enrich a place in unforeseen ways by what they bring with them from their homelands.
Interspersed throughout the collection are stories of Akbar and Birbal. These are reimagined versions of popular folk stories about Akbar the Great, the third Mughal Emperor of India and his friend and principal adviser Raja Birbal. Akbar struggles to be a good ruler, and it is often Birbal’s cleverness that helps him solve problems, grow and learn. Datt Sharma’s genderflipped Akbar and Birbal are transported to a space-faring empire. But the core heart of the stories remains – a strong friendship between two individuals who are not afraid to speak truth to one another.
This is a brilliant collection of fiction that deserves a wide audience. Datt Sharma is a writer to watch.
Goodreads rating: 5*