The difference between a fairy tale and a truck driver’s story is that the fairy tale starts with “Once upon a time,” whereas the truck driver’s story starts, “You ain’t gonna believe this…” – An Old Trucker Saying
Jimmie Aussapile’s trucker handle is “Paladin”, but he certainly doesn’t look like a holy warrior. Balding, mostly unshaven, growing a bit of a gut and never without his chaw and a cup to spit in, no one would suspect him of being a knight of the realm. But that’s exactly what Jimmie is, a member of the Brotherhood of the Wheel, the fighting branch of a tiny offshoot of the Knights Templar. The group consists of truckers, bikers, construction workers, and many others who make a living working the highways and secretly defending the roads and the people who travel on them.
It’s a hard enough job on the best of days, what with murderers, road ragers, and other lunatics being strangely drawn to the interstates. But it gets harder when a ghostly hitchhiker (not an uncommon sight on the roads) pulls Jimmie into a deeper mystery of kids going missing all across the country. The disappearances also bring in a police investigator with her own reasons for obsessing over missing children cases, and a smart-mouth biker with PTSD and his own connection to the Knights Templar.
Set in the same world as Nightwise, R.S. Belcher’s latest book is an urban fantasy/horror story of dark magic, remorseless killers (supernatural or otherwise), a small band of determined fighters, and a forgotten town with a centuries-old maniac working to destroy the world.
In his mind, Jimmie heard his dad’s voice: “You charge a gun, son, and back off a knife…”
“Stay the hell back!” the Marquis bellowed. “I got a gun!”
“Shit,” Jimmie said, adding a few extra syllables to the word, as he ran full steam toward the killer…
The author jumps right into the story, starting with Jimme Aussapile in his Peterbuilt tractor trailer, desperately trying to chase down a serial killer trucker before he can kill his latest victim. This is our introduction to several members of the Bretheren and how they work together: state troopers clearing the road ahead, taxi drivers calling in the killer’s location, construction workers throwing up road flares and arrow signs to herd the quarry into position, back-and-forth over the CB radio and signing off each message with, “The wheel turns.” It’s amazingly satisfying to read, and it made me wish like hell that things like this are actually happening. Do yourself a favor and have youtube open so you can call up the music Jimmie has on his playlist; R.S. Belcher uses music throughout the book to set the tone, and the Metallica selection in the first chapter works particularly well.
This book doesn’t have as much of the flashy magic-using that we saw in the first book, instead going for a grittier tone. The characters live a little closer to the “real” world, so you have scenes in cozy suburbs, hard-drinking mountain motorcycle clubs, cluttered ancient basements, or low-rent apartment complexes with overgrown lawns and retirees keeping an eye on everything through a gap in the curtains. Jimmie doesn’t exactly live the life of a knight; you don’t get paid for being a member of the Brotherhood, so he has to deal with all of the real-world problems of trying to support a family (wife, daughter, baby on the way) on a trucker’s salary when he keeps having to miss shipping deadlines after detouring for things like saving people from cannibalistic serial-killer cults.
Belcher’s writing matches the tone, with clipped sentences that read like a hard-boiled murder mystery and made the pages flow by. The simple phrases are occasionally mixed with flowery, almost gothic sentences. It can be a little jarring sometimes, and I sometimes wished the author wouldn’t have two different characters speaking in the same paragraph, or abruptly jump from one point of view to another in the same section. I think that last bit is a conscious decision on the author’s part, since it makes it impossible to know ahead of time who’s going to survive until the end of the chapter. Nobody’s safe in this book, and some truly horrible things happen to characters without much warning, all while getting inside the mind of the person doing the horrible things, just for that added level of creepiness.
I enjoyed any section with Jimmie being called in to save the day, but if I had to pick a favorite character it would be Hector Sinclair (Heck to his friends. And enemies. And everyone else. Don’t call him Hector.) Heck is a young, tattooed biker, a member of the Blue Jocks motorcycle club. The club has ties to the Brotherhood, and Heck finds himself signing up as “squire” to Jimmy. Still suffering from the fallout from his tour of duty in the marines, Heck has exactly zero fucks to give, and a bad habit of wading into a fight without thinking. The character of Max Lehr would be a close second (pretty, bookish, enthusiastic, with no field experience in the Brotherhood but who gets to jump in and be surprisingly bad-ass and save the day. With her brain. I love characters like that) but Heck’s dialog is the most fun to read. He’s intelligent but completely disrespectful; he’s incapable of taking anything seriously, and has a dry smart-ass comment for any situation.
“I am a badass biker,” Heck growled as he tried to wrestle the gun out of Lovina’s hand. “And I’d like to add that I feel the term ‘little bitch’ is hurtful and demeaning.”
The author takes a kitchen sink approach with the story, so there’s a little something for everyone. There are mystical lines of power and internet memes, paired with snippets from a police procedural. There are appearances of a nightmarish black-clad motorcycle rider sprouting impossibly huge antlers, and somebody’s best friend is a half were-possum on his mother’s side. The main plot involves an ancient evil who’s been sacrificing to one particular god for a very long time, but you’ve also got car chases, high-speed motorcycle duels complete with knives, and over-the-top gun battles that are a textbook definition of “a hail of bullets”. And if you want something more Lovecraftian, you’ll probably enjoy the scene where the characters ride a semi at ninety miles an hour through a nightmare land while being chased by something that absolutely should not be able to run. Some of it’s deliberately silly (like the meeting with the celebrity that some people think faked his death but who actually did die but “got over it”), and some of it is gory and flat-out horrifying, but all of it is entertaining, and there are lots of “Yeah, get him, get him!” moments.
Just like in his previous book, the story elements that the author covers in Brotherhood of the Wheel are only one tiny part of the wider world he’s created. We still don’t know everything about the main characters’ histories, and there’s a lot more to learn about the different branches of the Knights Templar and how they work together (or don’t). I understand that R.S. Belcher already has sequels in the works for both Brotherhood and Nightwise (Laytham Ballard got a shout-out in this one, so I’m really hoping for a Nightwise sequel myself) and he’s given himself plenty of material to work with, since so many so many chapters had little throwaway bits about villains, magic-users, ancient gods and demonic pacts, each one of which could make an entire story all on their own.