Book review: The Brotherhood of the Wheel by R. S. Belcher

American highways are the battleground of a war between good and evil.  Monsters, both real and in human form, are being hunted by truckers and motorcycle gangs who trace their lineage back to the Knights Templar.  This may sound bombastic, but the book is anything but.  It is gritty, down to earth, and it feels far more authentic than other monster-fighting urban fantasy series.

Jimmy Aussapile is a middle-aged trucker down on his luck.  He is missing deliveries and is close to losing his home, but he has a good reason for this.  He is part of a secret organization that hunts serial killers and other monsters that plague the American highway system.  The book opens with him pursuing a killer who left behind a string of dead prostitutes.  After he catches him and alerts his contact in the FBI, on his way home he comes across a ghostly hitchhiker girl who asks him to drive her to her parents’ house.  There, he finds the first clues regarding the disappearance of many young children.

Hector Sinclair, who prefers the name Heck, is a biker who is bailed out of jail to attend his stepfather’s funeral.  There, he finds out that his biker gang served a higher purpose and is told to find Jimmy and become his apprentice.  Heck finds Jimmy in a tight spot, when Jimmy tries to rescue a family of hapless travelers from a roadside diner that shelters a group of sadistic serial killers.  After a shootout that leaves only the good guys alive, the two of them head on the trail of clues that the ghost left for Jimmy.

Lovina is a cop who in her free time investigates the disappearance of young children.  She stumbles across the kidnapping of a journalist who had been investigating the same.  As she searches the crime scene, she is accosted by two young kids giving out very scary vibes, and she decides to flee.  Soon, she gets an alert that someone accessed the police file of one of the children she’s been trying to find.  She heads to the retired cop who showed interest in the file, only to find him, Jimmy and Heck discovering the remains of the missing girl.  At that moment, they are ambushed by a group of these scary children who transform into superhumanly strong and fast beasts with poisonous bite.  They manage to defend themselves and begin investigating these children and the disappearances together.

During their investigation, they find that all clues point to an old serial killer, The Pagan.  They find out that he’s been serving an ancient god, sacrificing people in a town that he had disconnected from reality.  A researcher into this mythology joins them and informs them that this ancient god is one side of a cosmic balance, and as he grows stronger, the balance may be upset enough to destroy the universe.  The team manages to cross over to the isolated town, mount a defense against the Pagan’s henchmen and successfully restore the balance in the universe.

Even though I’ve never driven a truck, from my years in the US I have extensive background in trucking, and I crossed the continent by car more times than I care to remember.  As such, I could fully appreciate the setting the author had to offer.  Unfortunately, this caused me to almost put the book down less than ten pages in.  In the opening scene, Jimmy pursues the murderer on I-70 South, and this threw me off.  Even-numbered highways are always east-west going, and odd-numbered go north and south.  I suspected that the author didn’t know what he was talking about, and I still have my reservations about that.  But while the trucking or driving aspect may not sound too authentic, the protagonists make up for this deficit.

Jimmy is as unlikely a hero as they come, but he has his heart at the right place and somehow manages to do everything right.  That’s not to say that he is clumsy; he is very capable, but he is a human with somehow limited lifespan because of his diet and lifestyle.  The others are also very relatable, in particular Heck.  He not only has a redemption arc going for him, but also a dark secret that made me pick up the sequel faster than is usually the case.  Lovina also has a good motive to act the way she does.  It also helps that this book doesn’t go the Dan Brown route by investing separate chapters on all main characters’ personal histories and backgrounds, and instead serves tantalizingly little, but always just enough information on its protagonists.

I already have a soft spot for monster hunting fantasy, especially for the Monster Hunter series by Larry Correia.  Brotherhood is even better, in my opinion.  It isn’t as grandiose, as Belcher kept it subdued throughout the entire story.  Sure, there is an evil ancient god poised to destroy the universe, but for most of the time he and his henchmen are contained to an alternate reality, with only a handful of other people.  The bulk of the evil comes from real, albeit twisted, people.  These are also kept rather low-key, in secret societies or out of sight of the authorities and regular people.  I could easily imagine a world where this secret war between good and bad humans, not monsters, takes place.

Then, in the middle of all this gritty fantasy, we get a resurrected Elvis as the owner of an exclusive club.  This single ridiculous scene, which I considered completely unnecessary, broke my immersion in the book.  I still struggle to understand what the author had in mind: whether to create a comedic relief to break the drama, or to show that he could match other authors in creating outlandish setups.  I tend to assume the former, but whatever the author’s intent was, for me it fell flat.  Or rather, it stuck as a sore thumb from the book and devalued my reading experience.

In addition to the undead Elvis, I wasn’t too impressed by the writing style.  It feels like the story had been narrated by Jimmy, even though he is just one of the protagonists.  Owen Pitt in Monster Hunter makes a great an authentic narrator, but Jimmy is not one.  If the author takes a god’s eye view of the entire story, I’d expect the language to be accordingly elevated.

Despite these shortfalls, I enjoyed The Brotherhood of the Wheel.  It is a solid book, grim and dark, with a relatable ensemble cast and from a large part fairly realistic antagonists.  It doesn’t go into bombastic excesses of other books, and most of the otherworldly stuff is contained in the other world.  As far as urban fantasy goes, R. S. Belcher has found his place on my bookshelf.

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