LitStack Review: The Brotherhood of the Wheel by R. S. Belcher

by Sharon Browning

The Brotherhood of the Wheel
R. S. Belcher
Tor Books
Release Date:  March 1, 2016
ISBN 978-0-7653-8028-9

I grew up in the 1970s, mostly in small towns in the Midwest.  The truckers that would go rumbling down the highways that invariably transected our tiny burgs were legendary in their mystique.  As kids, my sisters and I loved it when our humble family VW van got caught up in one of the iconic convoys chronicled by outlaw oracle C. W. McCall.  Breaker, breaker, good buddy.

Well, author R. S. Belcher takes that rustic glamour and ties it into the mythos of the Knights Templar (which originated around 1129 as a monastic order charged with protecting Christians from bandits and highwaymen as they traveled on pilgrimages in the Holy Land following the recapture of Jerusalem in the First Crusade).  These modern day knights, mounted in 18 wheelers rather than on horses, wielding CB radios and shotguns rather than long swords, travel the country’s highways protecting unsuspecting travelers from heinous elements both psychotic and supernatural.  They are secret, they are dedicated, they are the Brotherhood of the Wheel.

Jimmie Assapile is not exactly the image of a knight in shining armor.  Middle aged, tall but with a solid beer gut, blond hair that had “completely abandoned his head except for the fringes” pulled back in a long ponytail, green eyes, a “road beard” and a lump of chaw in his right cheek that probably had something to do with yellowed teeth that were slightly crooked, his tabard is a black tee shirt and an Air Force style jacket with an American flag patch on the left arm, a wallet on a chain and a straight razor tucked in one of his steel toed cowboy boots.  An independent contractor with a wife, a mortgage, a teen-aged daughter and another kid on the way, when he is behind the wheel of his Peterbilt 379, he is known as the Paladin, and he may be the best friend you never knew you had.

Jimmie would like nothing more than to make a few runs, get paid, and head home to await the birth of his child, but kids are disappearing and the Paladin is on the trail.  Along with his squire- a hot headed kid with a souped up motorcycle and a very itchy trigger finger – and eventually an obsessed cop from New Orleans, they follow the trail to a serial killer known down the years as the Pagan, but what they ultimately find is even more nefarious and ancient, and if not stopped, may even destroy the fabric of the world itself.

R. S. Belcher is becoming an author known for going full tilt at alternate takes of established tropes: the Wild West (The Six Gun Tarot, The Shotgun Arcana), urban detectives (Nightwise), and now big rig truckers. He sets up his stories with tried-and-true characters, jumps off the deep end, and then puts a surprising foundation under a story that has teased the reader with enthusiastic chaos.

The Brotherhood of the Wheel is chock full of action adventure and down home wisdom.  Yes, there are times when the action strains even fictional credulity:  carnage at truck stops, a chase on a major highway that exceeds speeds of 200 mph with numerous crashes, deaths with no culpability, destruction of property (including semi-automatic sweeps of police cruisers) with no fallout; some explanations are made, but even if the authorities can be circumvented, where are the insurance adjusters?  The civil lawsuits?  The minutia of dealing with collateral damage?  But as my daughter is fond of saying in entertainments that sidestep reality:  don’t worry about it.

Although Brotherhood of the Wheel may skirt around plausibility, it works on sheer audacity and appeals to the honorable renegade in all of us.  The horrors in the novel are truly horrific, the threats visceral and palpable, the evil faced gut wrenchingly malevolent.  And the mysticism, both within the brotherhood and in that with which they are locked in battle, is amazingly consistent, profoundly expressed, and, dare I say it?  Credible.  Frighteningly so, even as it grows more epic.

Oh, and there are lots and lots of explosions.  Fair game when it comes to trying to save the world.

Read Brotherhood of the Wheel, and I’m fairly certain that you’ll never look at truckers the same again.  Those men and women in their 18 wheelers may be doing more than hauling loads, they may just be keeping travelers like you and me safe.

The wheel turns, my friend.  The wheel turns.

~ Sharon Browning

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