Saturday, June 4, 2011

Arty - The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland

I've seen this book in a hundred different bookstores and been mesmerized every time by its cover. Maybe I have a thing for old-fashioned covers, but... isn't it beautiful? There's just something magical about it.

And then there's the old adage, Don't judge a book by its cover.

Arthur de Caldicot is the son of John de Caldicot, lord of a manor near the Welsh border in 12th century England. He's a normal thirteen-year-old, the second-born son, hoping to become a squire soon. His older brother, Serle, is a bully; his friend, Merlin, is as mysterious as old men come (not to mention he can jump 47 feet in a single bound).

Then Merlin gives Arthur a strange stone - an obsidian - that shows him of another Arthur, one from centuries past... the son of King Uther. And Arthur starts to realize that perhaps his humdrum existence isn't all there is to him.

As is obvious, this is a retelling, of sorts, of the King Arthur story. Well, maybe not retelling, as all the classical story has already passed and is accepted as fact; a continuation. And as interesting as it sounds... Crossley-Holland really let his story fall.

Basically - nothing happens. There are 100 chapters in this book, most pleasantly short, but they don't really do anything to advance the plot. It's Arthur, living his life as it happens, and occasionally seeing flashbacks of his past self - the Arthur - in his obsidian. I've heard critical reviews saying that the book is 'melodious,' 'thoughtful,' 'musical;' these, apparently, are synonyms for 'boring,' 'uninspired,' 'lifeless.'

The prose was good, even 'musical' at times. The beginning sentence: "Tumber Hill! It's my clamber-and-tumble-and-beech-and-bramble hill! Sometimes, when I'm standing on the top, I fill my lungs with air and I shout. I shout." It's lilting, compelling, even hypnotizing sometimes, like Old English ballads.

But prose can't save a sagging plotline.

Arthur was a likable enough kid, as was his little sister Sian. And Merlin - well, I haven't met an author yet who can totally ruin Merlin, and Crossley-Holland is no exception. It's not like any reader with half a brain can't guess that 'the hooded man' that Arthur sees in his obsidian is Merlin, but it's still great to see him in his quintessential Totally Awesome Old Wizard role. That never gets old (no pun intended).

The story did pick up a little tiny bit at the end, and if the library has the sequel, I might pick it up... on a slow day. And this is because I'm a King Arthur fan. If you're not a King Arthur fan, then this is definitely not the book for you (and it probably won't be even if you are).

Someone looking for something better would do good to look up the Pendragon Cycle, by Stephen R. Lawhead. Obviously based on Arthurian legend, it goes all the way from Taliesin (an old Celtic bard) to the search for the Holy Grail. I've only read the first book, Taliesin, which was very good, but I've never known Lawhead to disappoint as his series go along.

Another alternative to the Arthur Trilogy would be the Lost Years of Merlin, by T.A. Barron. These, obviously, are about Merlin, not Arthur, and, while they can get extremely cliché and/or cheesy, they're still quite entertaining.

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