This review originally appeared at Fantasy-Faction.com.
“Is it true you killed High-Hand Lawrence and Hotpants the squirrel during the same card game?”
Nothing from Cinnabar. No words, no change in his demeanor, no breathing, only the absolute stillness of which only a cold-blooded creature is capable.
“I wonder if you’re as fast as they say,” Bessie Weasel chirruped, her hand slowly straying toward her belt.
“Wondering is free,” Cinnabar said finally, his voice soft and low. “Certainty has its price.”
If you take the time to browse through the reader reviews of Daniel Polansky’s outstanding The Builders, you’ll see it compared to all sorts of stories – Redwall, Watership Down, Unforgiven, The Dirty Dozen, True Grit, Mouse Guard, The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, Red Country, The Usual Suspects and even Quentin Tarantino movies.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about The Builders is that even as it draws inspiration from many of these classic stories, it’s wholly original, and unlike anything I’ve come across. Much like the characters whose story it tells, The Builders is a lean, vicious story that doesn’t pull any punches once the action gets going.
About the Author
Daniel Polansky is the author of the Low Town trilogy, and in 2015 began The Empty Throne duology with Those Above. The second half of the series, Those Below, is slated for release on February 25th.
In the anthropomorphic world of The Builders, most of the Captain’s company has settled into a relatively safe, quiet life in the five years since they lost the battle to put their king on the throne. But the Captain isn’t satisfied. And he’s reuniting the old band to avenge their defeat.
One by one, the mouse gathers his old companions: Bonsoir the assassin stoat, Boudica the sniper opossum, Cinnabar the sharpshooting salamander, Barley the chain gun-wielding badger, Gertrude the clever mole, and Elf the now-crazed owl. It’s a ridiculous collection of characters to list in succession, and in the afterword Polansky freely admits that the book began as a one-note joke, but The Builders is successful because it treats its characters and their task with earnest seriousness. Even when Polansky makes jokes regarding the characters’ anthropomorphic qualities, it’s never at the expense of the characters or the plot.
The Builders weighs in at just 226 pages, occupying that strange space between a long novella and a short novel. Polansky intersperses the action with frequent chapter breaks, wasting little time with anything that isn’t absolutely essential to the story. In fact, several chapters are a single sentence. It’s a style that lends toward the story’s pace – Polansky easily could have padded the story, but the story’s genius lies in the simplicity of the plot.
You can compare The Builders to countless novels and movies because you’ve seen the basic setup before. In fact, at this point it’s become something of a trope – a collection of characters with varied backgrounds and skill sets gather in a bar to begin a quest.
Polansky takes the time to show us how the Captain found each of these characters in their new lives – providing just enough hints about their previous roles and skills to keep us interested. And it’s those small details that make the book so special. Considering how many characters he’s juggling and how little time he takes, Polansky’s ability to make us care about most of these characters is staggering.
Here’s his early description of Cinnabar:
Cinnabar had calm eyes, friendly eyes, eyes that smiled and called you “sir” or “madam,” depending on the case, eyes like cool water on a hot day. Cinnabar had hands that made corpses, lots of corpses, walls and stacks of them. Cinnabar’s eyes never seemed to feel anything about what his hands did.
And here’s an example of Bonsoir’s grandiosity:
“I am Bonsoir,” the stoat hissed, a scant inch from the Captain’s ears. “I have cracked rattlesnake eggs while their mother slept soundly atop them, I have snatched the woodpecker mid-flight. More have met their end at my hand than from corn liquor and poisoned bait! I am Bonsoir, whose steps fall without sound, whose knives are always sharp, who comes at night and leaves widows weeping in the morning.”
Inherent in the story of each member of the company is the comparison between who they were and who they are today. Throughout the story, the reader – and the characters themselves – ask whether people (or in this case, animals) have the ability to change the true essence of who they are. Will the company revert to the lives of violence they once led? Some of the characters, like Bonsoir, return happily to the killing. Others struggle against the return to brutality.
At first glance, The Builders does everything possible to belie its true nature. It almost looks like a children’s book, with its diminutive length and cast of animal characters. But a children’s book needs a good guy, and as much as I grew to love the characters in this book, Polansky doesn’t leave you with any easy answers. In the end, it turns out that The Builders isn’t a joke at all.