Kevin Crossley-Holland spins an enchanting tale of magic and mystery in The Seeing Stone, the first book in a planned trilogy based on Arthurian legend. The story opens at the cusp of the 12th and 13th centuries, when a 13-year-old lad named Arthur discovers that his life is about to take some unexpected turns. At the heart of all this change is Merlin, a mysterious man who possesses incredible knowledge and power. It is Merlin's special gift to young Arthur -- a shiny piece of obsidian -- that gives this book its name and much of its magic.
All that young Arthur can think about is his desire to become a squire and, eventually, a knight, a goal his father seems determined to prevent him from reaching. At first, the only thing Arthur has to feed his dream are his hopes and his imagination, which are often tempered by the harsh realities of life. But then his mentor, Merlin, gives him a shiny stone, uttering a cryptic message about its power. When Arthur looks into the dark surface of the stone, images appear -- snippets of past events from other people's lives, including a powerful King named Uther and a young knight named Arthur. When certain aspects of young Arthur's life begin to parallel those of his namesake in the seeing stone, he begins to wonder if the images might not be a glimpse of the future rather than the past. Arthur's quest for the truth answers some of his questions but also raises plenty of others, no doubt as a lead-in to the second chapter in this trilogy.
This is no fluffy tale of Camelot. Arthur tackles a number of provocative issues in his dealings with others, and his observations provide a grim but realistic commentary on the filth, hunger, and barbarism that was a regular part of life in the Middle Ages. But the book's overall structure -- told from Arthur's point of view in 100 very short chapters -- and its mystical overtones make The Seeing Stone a quick and engaging read. (Beth Amos)