We reviewed The Seeing Stone, Book One of the Arthur Trilogy by Kevin Crossley-Holland, when it came out in 2000. In At the Crossing-Places, Crossley-Holland continues the story of Arthur de Caldicot, a young squire in England at the turn of the 13th century.
The book opens as Arthur is leaving Caldicot, the only home he's known, to travel to Holt Manor as the new squire to Lord Stephen. Arthur has just learned that Sir John and Lady Helen of Caldicot are not his parents, as he has always believed, but his foster parents. His real father is Sir William, a hard, brutal murderer. He doesn't know who his mother is, and Sir William has threatened horrible consequences should Arthur try to find out.
Arthur's life is in turmoil. Grace, a girl he has spoken of betrothal to, is Sir William's daughter, and hence his half sister. Gatty, another girl he loves deeply as a friend, is a commoner and can never be part of Arthur's new world of approaching knighthood. And then there's the fact that, with Sir Stephen, he's becoming an Outremer (in French, literally "over the sea"), or a Crusader. He'll be gone from England for a long time, perhaps years. He might not come back at all.
It's a lot for a boy of thirteen to deal with all at once, but Crossley-Holland has provided Arthur with a friend not many boys have: the mysterious Merlin, wise man and wanderer. Merlin has given Arthur a seeing-stone, and in it Arthur can see the adventures of another Arthur, a boy like himself in the long-distant past whose life changed radically when he pulled a sword out of a stone. Like Arthur now, Arthur-in-the-stone stands in the "crossing-places," those times in our lives when we must make changes, become someone new. Whenever Arthur feels confused or troubled, he can watch Arthur-in-the-stone and gain comfort and help from the earlier young king's decisions.
As Rebecca Swain, reviewer of The Seeing Stone, says in her review, the strength of this story lies not in its link to Arthuriana -- even though Crossley-Holland employs a deft hand weaving the old legends into Arthur's daily life -- but in its depiction of the world of a young boy in medieval England. The small details of herbal medicines, the way the people of that day mixed Christianity with folk wisdom and tradition, the rhythms of the year, all feel real and compelling.
Since I was a girl of seven, I've been a stickler for detail. I exasperated my elders by asking things like, "If there's been a hundred years of winter in Narnia (in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), how come the Beavers have onions and potatoes? They couldn't grow them." The same small voice in my head piped up with questions now and again as I was reading At the Crossing-Places. "Would Arthur really have two purple tunics?" "Would they really give vellum to such a young man to practice writing on?" These questions didn't keep me from enjoying the story, and I didn't even stop long enough to go and find out the answers, which speaks for Crossley-Holland's ability to keep a plot moving. I only mention it here as a warning for sticklers like me (and their elders).
This is a thick book, but it moves fast. Young readers fascinated with the Middle Ages, or with anything to do with King Arthur or the Crusades, will find much here to delight them.
If you go to BBC Radio's Web site, you can listen to an interview with Kevin Crossley-Holland in which he talks about the Arthur trilogy.