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Cover of "Forge of Darkness," by Steven Erikson. Tor.

Morlock Ambrosius, son of Merlin and Nimue from the Arthurian legends, has a crooked shoulder, a resistance to fire and a dark psyche that probably would result in a 21st-century prescription for Welbutrin.

He returns in "Guile of Dragons" (Pyr, $17.95, 278 pages) -- Book 1 of the "Tournament of Shadows," which appears to be author James Enge's backstory for the antihero Morlock, encountered by readers in three previous books. This is all good news, for Enge is a more than capable writer, and Morlock is one of the more intriguing antiheroes out there right now, given his struggles to survive in a bleak pre-industrial world.

In "Guile of Dragons," Morlock is a young soldier, of sorts, who gets involved when dragons invade the territory he must protect. At the same time, Morlock must deal with revelations regarding Merlin, his arrogant father who was imprisoned by another wizard before Morlock was born, as well as his surrogate father, leader of the dwarves who raised him.

But don't think that means readers must plow through long passages of Freudian patriarchy issues. The action is constant and the writing crisp; the extra depth added to the narrative by those paternal issues only strengthens the book. So if you haven't yet read any of Enge's books, this is the place to start -- and you'll have a lot of good reading ahead of you.

"Forge of Darkness" by Steven Erikson (Tor, $27.99, 662 pages). There's a lot of reading ahead if you've never read any of Erikson's 10-volume "Malazan Book of the Fallen," plus a three-volume prequel that begins with "Forge of Darkness. But I'm not too sure about calling it "good" reading.

That's not to say Erikson isn't a good writer; he is. His command of the voices of the various characters and the narrator is superb, and his ability to create characters with depth and texture is also way above average. The problems for me are the unrelentingly bleak and violent world Erikson creates and and the narrative he presents.

"Forge of Darkness" is set some time before the "Malazan Book of the Fallen" (of which I've read two or three installments, without ever getting through them all). I thought "Forge of Darkness" might be a way for me to re-engage with Erikson's highly acclaimed series. Unfortunately, "Forge of Darkness" pushed me to the brink of actually not finishing a book -- something I do maybe once a decade. Why? It was just too painful to read, in great part because of Erikson's ability to transform words into living beings (even if not quite human) -- beings that matter to the reader. So when those beings get raped, brutalized, tortured, wounded and killed in extremely unpleasant and meticulously described ways, it simply wears you down after awhile.

Add to that an incredibly complex plot and many characters and different points of view, and you have a work that not only details an unpleasant world launching into an unpleasant civil war, but that also requires constant references to the list of characters helpfully included at the start of the book. (It doesn't make things easier that one major character is named Risp and another Rint, or that you can go through hundreds of pages before returning to one narrator.)

Presumably, the various threads will unite in one grand tapestry by the end of Book 3, but it's likely that tapestry will depict nothing but treachery, torture, agony and death. And you know, I can find all that just by reading the morning paper.

So even though Erikson is clearly a good writer, and even though the reputation of the "Malazan Book of the Fallen" suggests that the Kharkanas Trilogy (as this "The Forge of Darkness series is called) will be, at worst, an above-average fantasy series, it's just too bloody for me.

Clay Kallam's "Other Worlds" column is published here monthly. Contact him at clayk@fullcourt.com.