Welcome to the Underworld by I.F. Rowan
Welcome to the Underworld is set in a fantasy-version of Ancient China. The book consists of a series of stories — one short story and three novellas — and together, they can be read almost as a short novel.
In “Looking for Goats, Finding Monkeys,” we meet Dao Shi, a historian-turned-conman who discovers that he really is an exorcist, and not merely a charlatan, when he runs across a nasty demon in the course of his quotidian fakery. He nonetheless continues with his usual manner of making a living, occasionally being called upon to genuinely exorcise a demon, when, in “The Turning of the Tiles,” he finds himself caught up in political intrigue that is beyond his ken and more dangerous to him than any of the demons he has met.
In the story from which the book gets its name, “Welcome to the Underworld,” Dao Shi is on the run from a mundane but terrifying danger when he finds himself on the wrong side of the empire’s forces. He finds help in unexpected places, and his showmanship skills are tested in life-and-death situations. When the Imperial Guard catches up to him, Dao Shi must trust a strange young woman who brings him to an even stranger place, the “Underworld.”
In “From the Heart of the Earth to the Peaks of the Sky,” we pick up Dao Shi’s journey where we left him at the end of “Welcome to the Underworld.” Here, his skills with demons will have to serve him as well as his craftiness.
Dao Shi is a flawed man, but one with a heart, and despite his own well-honed sense of self-preservation, he does have an impulse toward kindness, and toward seeing the right thing done. He is a likeable character, and I very much enjoyed Rowan’s depiction of an Ancient China in which demons and magic are real.
I was disappointed when I got to the end of the book. I wanted it to continue. If there is a sequel to it, I will buy it. I liked Dao Shi, and I liked the easy story-telling of I.F. Rowan. I would have enjoyed spending more time in their company.