The Boy in the Painting, the first volume of The Time Shield series by C.D. John, is a fantasy novel about an inquisitive seventeen-year-old Sarah Brown who meets Mark Louis de la Mer, a fairy-human hybrid, who, in 1908, was hidden in a Time Shield by his mother following his father's death, but the Holding Spell within the shield trapped Mark; thankfully, Sarah can directly access the spell, but she will need to undergo intense physical training as she learns about Mark's mysterious past. Obviously, there's romance between the two, but this isn't just a love story, it's a magical story that tests their willpower and courage.
Sarah's initiative to take on the mission to save Mark made me question what motivated her to help him in the first place. John elaborates her reason in a later chapter, but seeing a character commit on a dangerous quest without a personal connection to it, just didn't feel enough to suspend my disbelief. Her patience to hear Mark's long history about his family, fairy powers, and spells is also unbelievably extraordinary. The early chapters' exposition drags, but it isn't boring. I just wish the large chunk of background was scattered in fragments throughout the first act.
However, once readers gets through the slower sections of the book, they will see what C.D. John does best: create magical action scenes that enchant with vivid kinetic and visual imageries. Some of the descriptions look more artistic than the painting itself, such as this:
"The threads assembled inside a wide-brimmed glass bowl containing bright multicoloured powder. As he recited a refrain, the contents of the bowl rose up and began to multiply in quantity as they twisted and twirled. Soon, the fabric began to take on more defined shapes, and invisible scissors sliced them up as they spun. At the end of it all, the most comfortable-looking practical apparel and appropriate footwear were lined up on a sofa. "
The magical elements of the novel are just as enchanting. The variety of spells used in times of conflict are cleverly told, but the magic system lacks depth. I wish John placed limitations on the various powers used and added more technical details instead of simplifying magic. Still, the way John describe how magic interacts with the environment makes the scenes visually more powerful. How quickly Sarah learns how to cast spells and fight seems fast, despite the training she received from Mark, who also trains her mind by asking her strange questions: Do you fear a paintful death? He even doubts his decision to ask Sarah for help. Mark is worried about her safety, and he feels guilty for putting Sarah's life at risk, for sending her to the Holding Room.
"I should not speak with doubt at a time like this. Forgive me, Sarah, for being selfish. You must enter with confidence or not at all. I was just scared that in my desperation for freedom, I may have misled you. I speak the truth when I say my powers now are strong enough to aid you. I will not let you be lost in the Holding Room. You will come out, whether or not you have destroyed the spell."
Despite Mark's worries, Sarah, of course, is an independent heroine with a cool shapeshifting sidekick called Albain (my favorite character who somewhat resembles Hedwig from the Harry Potter series). Speaking of Harry Potter, I can see a lot of similarities between the two fantasy series: the stereotypes against half-blooded supernatural beings, and the variety of spells and the visual magic with it.
While the narrative focuses on Sarah's perspective in first-person, the novel shifts to different character's point-of-views in third-person. This makes the book's overall voice inconsistent, but it's an effective way of showing what the other characters are up to while Sarah isn't around.
The Boy in the Painting shines at the story's present, when action picks up the pace, and escapes its static past. John knows how to build suspense at these moments, such as when Sarah enters the Holding Room or when the heroic party battles the goblins and Dust Shriekers. The visual charms of the magic are also worth noting, but beyond the spectacle, the novel is really about having the courage to love, to be more vulnerable for the sake of love
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