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The Builders by Daniel Polansky

The Builders by Daniel Polansky
4.5
Book Name: The Builders
Author: Daniel Polansky
Publisher(s): Tor.com
Formatt: Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Novella
Release Date: November 3, 2015

Daniel Polansky is an interesting guy. I say this having never met the man and reading exactly 50% of his published output. He reminds me of Warren Ellis (the writer, not the Bad Seed) and that is a good thing. He knows the value of what has come before, and can create something new out of tropes that have been around for a century. And, like Ellis, he knows what he’s good at writing, and writes to his strengths. He’s old school that way. For my money, he’s criminally underexposed in the United States. Hard to make a name for yourself when your books are tough to find, though. So it makes perfect sense that Polansky’s latest is an anthropomorphic revenge-fantasy novella set in a Disney-on-mushrooms version of the United States. It’s called The Builders.

The Builders is a straightforward revenge novel. Years ago, The Captain, our antihero—and a mouse—was on the verge of a major military and political victory. The he was double-crossed. Now, he’s getting the band back together and seeking revenge on those that wronged him. Simple. Straightforward. Effective.

The Builders has the cinematic feel of a Spaghetti Western. It is widescreen and shot on grainy film. The dialogue is sparse, cutting to the bone in as few words as necessary. What isn’t said is as important as what is. Polansky is a deft writer and knows the value of shutting up. He conveys more in the space between words than most authors convey through a paragraph.

The Builders will draw comparisons to Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, and to Richard Adams’ Watership Down. These comparisons are fair, in the sense that all of the above involve anthropomorphic animals placed in very human situations. Of course, An American Tail and Maus are both about anthropomorphic mice, so that shallow comparison will only get you so far. If I had to do the elevator pitch, I’d say “The Builders is The Fantastic Mr. Fox filmed by Robert Rodriguez as told by Quentin Tarantino. But, you know, a book.”

The characters of The Builders leave instant and lasting impressions. Whether it is The Captain’s first appearance, the armadillo bearing a striking resemblance to Pancho Villa, or the Stetson-wearing salamander, Polansky has breathed life into his own wild bunch of misfits, malcontents and sociopaths. And that doesn’t even touch on Elf, The Quaker or a French-accented stoat named Bonsoir. I wouldn’t want to spoil too much. That’s just the tip of the anthropomorphic iceberg.

The logistics of it all are staggering. Polansky has managed to create not just a riveting story but an intricate and fascinating universe, in the span of just over 200 pages. Certainly, the world of The Builders is meant to be a version of our own. There’s the Old World, the Colonies, the verdant north and the arid Southwest. There are rough and tumble cities and remote desert towns. There’s France. And there is a history to all of it, conveyed to the reader as much through what doesn’t appear on the page as through what does. The world of The Builders is very much alive and kicking. Not bad for something the author himself refers to as a “one-note joke” in the acknowledgements.

The Builders is a complete tale, with a proper beginning and a proper end. There’s sort of a middle, but it is interspersed throughout the beginning (see previous comments re: Tarantino/Rodriguez). The prose is Spartan, but the characterization is anything but. Bonsoir, Barley, The Captain—they’re all fully-formed. Even the minor characters like the shrew conductor, the Weasel Sisters and the countless rat soldiers have personalities and bits and pieces of a backstory. It’s all thrown together in an effortless, tossed-off kind of way that really adds a warmth and sense of familiarity to it all. It is a living story in a lived-in world.

The Builders is quite the achievement. I’m sure that I could go on forever about the use of the anthropomorphic literary device and the dehumanizing nature of obsession and revenge but that’s just the kind of cock and bull that Polansky would deride. It’s a “one-note joke,” remember? The Builders, like all the best jokes, walks the fine line between absurdity and the darker truths. In the end, The Builders cuts with a punchline so sharp that you’re two steps out the door before you realize you’re bleeding.

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3 Comments

  1. Avatar Yora says:

    Ha, wonderful expression. “A novel shot in widescreen”. And I think I know exactly what you mean.

  2. Avatar night_wrtr says:

    This is my favorite read of 2015 so far. The writing is fantastic.

  3. I love that phrase “wild bunch of misfits, malcontents and sociopaths.”!

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