While I usually tend to distance the books in a series to avoid so-called reader fatigue, I did not want to wait too long for this second volume in R.S. Belcher’s on-the-road Urban Fantasy because I greatly enjoyed my first encounter with the Brotherhood, the modern inheritors of the famed Templars, the knights once protecting the pilgrims traveling toward the Holy Land. In more recent times, the old order transformed into the Brotherhood, an alliance of truckers, bikers, patrolmen and so forth cruising the roads and keeping their dangers at bay, be they mundane or supernatural.
In the first book of the series we met the three main characters: Jimmie Aussapile, a down-to-earth trucker gifted with great courage and a heart of gold; Lovina Marcou, a police officer marked by a family tragedy and set on battling all predators; and Heck Sinclair, a war veteran and member of a motorcycle club, all rough edges and deep bravery. The book starts with a high-octane mission that sees the three of them engaged in stamping out a band of children traffickers, but soon they are forced to take different roads in pursuit of various foes: Lovina, always keen on the subject of missing girls after the kidnapping and murder of her younger sister, follows the trail of a vanished young woman who keeps haunting her in vivid dreams set at the very moment of the assault; Jimmie is battling with the usual problems of too little cash and too many repairs to his truck, but this does not prevent him from lending Heck a hand as the biker finds himself faced with a splinter group in the club whose dangerous departure from the Blue Jocks’ code of honest living threatens the very existence of their crew.
This split narrative, that at some point also sees the welcome return of Max, the talented scientist from the Builders’ branch of the Brotherhood, makes for an intense reading journey, where the alternating chapters drove me to keep reading to see how the other characters fared in their own dangerous investigations. The story is further enhanced by the introduction of twelve year old Ryan, a boy relocating with his mother to a trailer park after a distressing experience, and finding different, terrifying dangers in the new home, but also new friends, in a narrative equivalent to a theme dear to Stephen King, that of the violated innocence of youth that can sometimes turn into unexpected courage and a lifelong bond.
Murderous cults seem to be one of the most common enemies the Brotherhood must face, and the one in King of the Road is a scary one indeed: its members distinguish themselves by painting unique clown masks on their faces (and there is something special and ominous in the paint they use…) and they harvest victims for their leader and his heinous goals, leaving their dismembered remains in plain view, both for ritualistic and shock value. What we learn along the way, is that these monsters have been doing this for decades, if not more, and every single one of them has been handpicked for cruelty and the absolute lack of common human feelings like dismay or remorse. The evil clown theme is one often found in horror literature (once again I need to quote the Master and his novel IT as a prime example) and I’m aware that there is a very real syndrome (coulrophobia) engendering fear of clowns in people who suffer from it, and I found that here this fear is used very skillfully because there is nothing more frightening that finding wickedness under the mask of someone who should only bring joy and amusement. The bright side in this very dark part of the story comes from Lovina’s determination to go to the bottom of the mystery and to bring justice to the many victims, but also from the trailer park’s kids and their bond of loyalty that proves stronger than their fears.
Heck, on the other hand, seems at first to be fighting against a more mundane takeover of the club’s leadership and goals: it’s only when the sinister character of Viper comes on the scene that the supernatural elements come to the fore – and there is also something quite ominous in the past ties between Viper, the Blue Jocks and Heck himself, that hints at possible shattering revelations along the way. But on that path lie spoilers, so I will say no more… In my review of the previous book I wrote that it took me some time to warm up to Heck, but here I felt quite strongly for him: seeing his club undermined from its very core, having to suffer grievous losses in the war against the separatists, feeling his future leadership endangered, he rises to the challenge with a focus and a maturity that seemed impossible given his previous volatile nature.
A special mention must go to another biker club, The Bitches of Selene, where the members are mostly women and everyone is a shapeshifter: their leader Ana Mae is the perfect, ass-kicking female character I enjoy reading, because she’s a delightful blend of strength and humor, and the perfect foil for Heck. Not to mention that she’s a werewolf too and that there is no question about who is the Alpha between the two of them… 😉
The breakneck pace of the events and the deepening characterization of the regulars are the core of the story, and the latter is notably achieved by separating the three “regulars” and so giving them more space to grow, but there is more in King of the Road that makes it special: the intriguing glimpses into the hobo culture, with its inner “laws” and customs, and the way it somehow dovetails with some of the Brotherhood’s principles; the discovery that the Road is not the only place of aggregation for modern wanderers and that the Rail and freight trains are part of a parallel lifestyle. And last but not least a closer glimpse into the other branches of the Brotherhood, the Builders (the scientists and scholars) and the Benefactors, whose focus is on the financial aspects: the final chapter of the novel sheds more light into the other two spokes of the Wheel, and lays the ground for what we will certainly find in the next novel, that for me will not be here soon enough.
Granted, Mr. Belcher does show again his penchant for detailed descriptions of each character’s items of clothing, and here he compounds this quirk by listing the titles of songs playing on the radio whenever one is present on the scene, but I’ve come to accept it as part of the story: to quote programmers of old who used to say, “it’s a feature, not a bug”, I’ve learned to smile indulgently at these digressions instead of being bothered by them… 🙂
Note: this is my first post created using WordPress’ new Block Editor, the dreaded update that seems to have thrown the blogging community in deep turmoil. It was not easy, granted, and it requires patience and a tough learning curve, but it’s not impossible. So far I have been able to style my post the way I like it, although I spent more time on it than I am used to, but I wanted to share this small success as a form of encouragement to my fellow bloggers who have been so far baffled by the new interface. Don’t give up! 😉