A Fistful of Dust by Sharon Bidwell

A Fistful of Dust by Sharon Bidwell
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical, Action/Adventure
Length: Short Story (102 pages)
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Phobos, fearful son of Mars. A moon often likened to a diseased potato…but is there more to the legends surrounding the satellite than mere rumour? Drawn to Mars as part of a covert mission, the team of the Esmeralda 2 are waylaid by Sir Henry Routledge, governor-general of Syrtis Major. Although at first reluctant to take on an additional mission — a search for a missing man — they change their minds upon hearing one Henry Barnsdale-Stevens has gone missing on Phobos, the mysterious moon of Mars that many say inspires fear.

The explorers set out for Phobos believing they may well find the minerals they’ve been looking for, and save a man’s life. Another myth calls to them — the strange monolith that rises from Phobos’ surface…but does it extend below? The team discovers this is not an ill-formed ‘bit of rock’, nor a remnant of the Stickney crater impact. It’s much more mysterious and marvelous, for there are words and drawings on the stone.

What secrets does the moon conceal, and why does it inspire dread? Will the team manage to survive long enough to find the answers? Their descent beneath the surface may lead to the most amazing discoveries yet.

It’s hard to rescue someone when you’re not even sure if he’s still alive.

The best scenes in this novella involve foreshadowing so subtle that their messages are extraordinarily easy to miss. Ms. Bidwell made me feel a deep sense of foreboding before I had any idea what her characters might be facing. What makes her work unique is that discovering what caused my dread only made me fear it more. There was no comfort to be found in knowing the answer to this question, and for that reason this tale will stick with me for a very long time.

The introduction of a large number of characters in the beginning slowed down the pacing of the first third of this book. Not all of the relationships between the characters are immediately clear, so I had trouble at first remembering who was who. Because the adventure begins as the characters are travelling to their destination, the combination of a relatively large group of people and the amount of time it took to set up who they were and why they were on this mission made the first third of the plot feel like it was moving much more slowly than this reader ordinarily expects from an adventure tale.

With that being said, once the pacing picks up about halfway through the narrative I couldn’t put this book down. Old rivalries and allegiances among various members of the main cast of characters are illuminated as they discover something they never would have imagined to exist.

I didn’t realize that A Fistful of Dust was part of a series until I was midway through the plot. Figuring this out helped me understand why the first few chapters contain so many references to the character’s backstories without the text including any flashbacks to what sound like very exciting scenes. While this book can be read as a standalone novel, I am looking forward to going back to the first book in the series to discover exactly what happened to these characters earlier on in their adventures.

A Fistful of Dust is a good choice for anyone who loves the atmosphere and plot tropes of nineteenth century science fiction.

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