The Crimson Shard, by Teresa Flavin, is the sequel to The Blackhope Engima, the story of three young teenagers who enter the magical world of a Renaissance painting, where an artist/alchemist has hidden many secrets... It continues the adventures of two of these kids, Sunni and Blaise, recently returned from that journey, and enjoying being simple sight-seers in London. But a trip to the home of an 18th-century painter, master of trompe l'oeil, turns into a nightmare when their tour guide, the sinister Mr. Throgmorton, opens a painted door into the past.
Now Sunni and Blaise are trapped by Throgmorton and his nasty daughter in the workshop of the artist who painted the door--a place where semi-starving boys are forced to draw and paint constantly, copying "borrowed" masterpieces of art. They think they are learning their craft, but the whole setup is much darker than that....
Throgmorton wants Sunni and Blaise to help him get back to the Renaissance painting they visited in The Blackhope Enigma, so that he can master its magical secrets. And so they are forced to labor alongside the boys, with the threat of death hanging over their heads...and won't get to go back through the door, unless they betray secrets they should never tell.
Me--at this point I was rather doubtful. Yes, it was an interesting plot, but the plight of Sunni and Blaise back in the 18th century was very grim reading. There seems to be no way out! The orphan boys are in a miserable situation, that occasionally turns fatal on them. Blaise is being something of a lump. Living conditions are dire. Thankfully, they manage to escape.
With the help of two questionable associates of Mr. Throgmorton, whose job is to pilfer the masterpieces to be copied, the two kids find themselves on the grimy streets of London. But to get home, they must somehow find a way back through the painted door....
Me--things are much more cheerful now, and I'm enjoying my reading much more. There is hope, in the form of a group of young gentleman (and one gentlewoman) who are interested in their plight. With a mix of alchemy, luck, and determination, Throgmorton is thwarted.
Those who like historical adventure with art and magic should enjoy this one. It's a vivid portrayal of 18th century London, full of lots of detail, the plot is interesting, and the stakes high. I had a few reservations-- the plot and the descriptive details drive the story, and though Blaise and Sunni are appropriately Determined, Blaise in particular never develops much character-wise. And I was never quite convinced by the semi-romance between the two of them, thrown in at odd intervals--it felt forced. But those who revel in oppressed orphans, 18th century pick-pocketing, and feisty gentlemen (along with a sister who wants to be feisty too) may feel differently! In fact it has been nominated for the 2013 Teen Choice Book of the Year.
Though I very much appreciated the Craft Fantasy aspects of this story (it's the best incorporation of art forgery into a fantasy novel I've ever read), I much preferred the mysterious beauty of the Renaissance painting in The Blackhope Enigma--that was truly magical. And, you know, I much prefer Renaissance Italy to 18th century London--I've never much cared for the 18th century, what with all the wigs. But though The Crimson Shard wasn't entirely a book for me personally, I am looking forward lots to the third book in the series--The Shadow Lantern, coming in the UK in May.