R S Belcher's 'Nightwise' (click here for review) was one of my favourite novels from last year. To suggest I was eager to read his next book is an understatement. To further suggest that I didn't enjoy 'The Brotherhood of the Wheel' quite as much as I did 'Nightwise' is far from a dismissal; merely an acknowledgement that it failed to reach the same heights. It still soared like an eagle and I enjoyed it greatly.
It's spun out of a chapter in 'Nightwise,' which I re-read and realise now that Belcher clearly had this future book very much in mind when he wrote it. In it, the lead character of that novel needs a lift from one city to another and he finds that in the Brotherhood of the Wheel, courtesy of a trucker named Jimmie Aussapile, one of the heroes of this story.
Aussapile is a glorious lead character because he's nothing like Hollywood would ever give us. He's a long haul trucker with a beer gut, bad teeth and a 'Squidbillies' cap. He has a pregnant wife back home and he's not making his runs on time because of his other activities, the ones he can't even tell her about.
You see, Aussapile is one of the Brethren, a member of the Brotherhood of the Wheel, part of a secret society with lineage back to the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, a group of nine crusaders who dedicated themselves in 1119 AD to protecting those who travelled down the roads into the Holy Land. After massive historical ups and downs, mostly as the Knights Templar, the Brethren returned to that original goal of protecting those travelling on the roads, which are the arteries and veins of our society.
You don't need to have read 'Nightwise' to get this novel, but if you did, you'll get an idea of what might be out there. That book was packed tight with underground culture, some of it good and some of it bad. This novel, very different in many ways, not least in tone, but set in the same universe, pits Jimmie and the Brethren against a bunch of the bad, such as interstate serial killer clubs like the one behind the Zodiac murders.
What Jimmie, and the folk who gradually form into a team with him, end up facing off against here is something far more timeless and dangerous. It's rooted in age-old folklore, but supported by creatures out of the internet age, urban myths like vanishing hitch-hikers, shadow creatures or BEKs (black-eyed kids), needle-mouthed creatures spawned from missing children.
This juxtaposition of the very old with the very new succeeds in keeping a relatively familiar story fresh. The points I'd dock this book are for the fact that I saw much of what was coming well ahead of the point I should. The points I'd award are for the fact that I kept reading anyway because Belcher writes well and his characters, groups and locations are magnetic.
Jimmie's real team is the Brethren, but they're thin on the ground and it takes some other folk to focus this story, get the word out and fight the good fight. Hector Sinclair, better known as Heck, is a biker from a motorcycle club with Scots heritage called the Blue Jocks who make their money in bounty hunting but hunt bigger monsters than 'wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beasties' on the side. After the death of his adoptive father, the leader of this club, he's sent to seek out Jimmie and become his squire.
Lovina Marcou is a New Orleans cop who's driven by family tragedy to work missing persons cases; she's seeking out a particular group of missing kids. Dewey Rears is a conspiracy theorist whom her work leads her to; Dewey has been seeking out some of the same missing kids for very different reasons. George Norse is even more of a conspiracy theorist, as he runs the Intergalactic Planetary Radio Network, which is as out there as it sounds but even more popular.
Ava is the one escapee from a group of six kids waylaid outside the lost town of Four Houses, which lies close to the middle of the contiguous 48 states, in rural Kansas. The town seems to be stuck outside of time, where people get trapped and can't leave. There are clearly good and bad people there, but Agnes Dee Cottington, known locally as 'the witch', is the one with whom Ava ends up stuck.
Dr. Max Leher is a Builder, one of the other three strands of the society that includes the Brethren. She's a professor who joins the fight when brains are needed as much as brawn and she's my favourite character for a host of quirky reasons.
There's even a guest appearance from someone famous who died and went to Hell (deals with the devil tend to end up that way,) only to be kicked out after he converted too many of the locals. As a demon working for good, he runs an underground bar and goes by a different name, but he's clearly who he was and his scenes are glorious.
These are fascinating characters and they're thrown into a fascinating war with much bigger stakes than the couple of college kids threatened in the opening salvo. There are discoveries to be made, theories to be proven and fights to be fought. The scale gets ever bigger and the depth of the world we're in is expanded considerably.
If the combination of old and new is what keeps the book fresh, there's a real depth in the fact that much of the old is British. Mrs. Cottington is English, the Blue Jocks are Scots and the folklore brought into play comes from the old country, but we're in the States reading about Americans who protect American roads and American people. The point is clearly that the new world isn't free from what populated the old. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
I liked this book a lot; if more, because of its characters and ideas than some of where it ends up, but it adds considerably to the world floated in 'Nightwise' by exploring completely different subcultures. I have no idea whether Belcher plans to take a chapter in this book and spin it out into his next novel, but it's clearly a good possibility.
The IPRN easily provides that opportunity, as does the HSKI, which is the FBI's Highway Serial Killings Initiative. I can see George Norse from the former and Cecil Dann from the latter ending up in a joint investigation that combines their realms of expertise and sends them into a whole set of new subcultures. I'd also love to read more about the Builders, even if the world of Dr. Leher is much less action-driven than that of the Brethren. In many ways, she's a geeky lesbian version of Indiana Jones and that concept deserves to be written up sooner rather than later.
Frankly, though, after 'Nightwise' and 'The Brotherhood of the Wheel,' you can count me in on any journey that R. S. Belcher wants to take us on. ~~ Hal C F Astell