Book Review: The Builders, by Daniel Polansky

When I was a kid, I read entirely too many Brian Jacques novels.

At the time, it was enough to read simple, straightforward adventures about mice with swords- but all these years later, the books really, really don’t hold up that well.

The Builders, by Daniel Polansky, isn’t a direct continuation of the Redwall novels, or even written in the spirit of them. I suppose you could argue the book’s a postmodern response to the Redwall books, similar to how A Song of Ice & Fire is written as the flipside of traditional epic fantasy. Really though, there’s the biggest similarity is due to the cast of anthropomorphic animals.

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Really, that mouse should be toting a shotgun, not a sword. Covers lie!

Using animal-characters is a fun bit of narrative shorthand that Polansky puts to good use. I mean, when a character is literally a toad, or a shrew, or a weasel, it’s pretty obvious how we’re supposed to think about them. I suppose this technically makes The Builders a “furry” novel, but that label is so broad that it applies to anybody who so much as picks Fox in a game of Super Smash Bros. Regardless, Polansky has a lot of fun with the premise. Shameless puns are made, and Polansky even briefly addresses matters of scale, or of how predator species people get along with prey species people. Spoiler: badly.

Even though the cast is made of various rodents, Polansky takes everything else dead seriously. Emphasis on the “dead.” The Builders is a western, one steepled in all the tropes. There’s whiskey, gunslingers, showdowns, gatling guns, six shooters, and even a train robbery. It’s just that instead of Clint Eastwood or John Wayne, it’s a bunch of various rats and weasels shooting at each other.

The Builders centers on The Captain, an angry, one-eyed mouse who’s getting his gang back together in order to get some sweet, sweet revenge on the (literal) skunk who nearly killed him five years prior. The Captain’s name, and mention of his broad-brimmed hat kind of made me envision him as Viggo Mortensen, only, uh, in mouse form.

The Captain and his gang are great characters. There’s seven of them, of course. My personal favorite was Bonsoir- a stoat and a Frenchman. Bonsoir has the tendency to steal the spotlight whenever he shows up- I bet Polansky had a blast writing the guy. Of course, one of the thing that makes The Captain and Co. so fun to read about is the fact they’re horrible people. Rodents. Whatever. To a man (or, er, rodent), they’re efficient, remorseless killers. Over the course of the book’s 200-ish pages, they do a lot of killing. Really, you could flip some perspectives around and make The Captain and his bunch the villains of the story without that much in the way of trouble. It’s just that the guys they go up against are even worse in comparison.

The Builders is a short, punchy book. It’s paced quickly, but more than that, it’s cut down to the bare essentials. The story is broken up into a bunch of short chapters, some only a few lines long. It has the vague feel of a screenplay, honestly. Only there’s no way in hell Hollywood would greenlight a talking animal western (at least not one this violent), so I guess we’ll just have to settle for the book. It’s ultimately a good thing that the book is so short. The longer the book, the more time the reader has to dwell on the inherent silliness of the premise.

The Builders is bloody, violent, and often grim. It’s also darkly funny. Polansky plays with wit and wordplay on every page. Even the chapter titles are little jokes (which makes me wonder if that’s why Polansky chopped the book up into so many segments). This is the first book by Polansky I’ve read, but it’s impressed me enough that I’d like to read more of his work, even if it doesn’t involve stetson-wearing, shotgun-toting mice.

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4 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on Book Rebel.

  2. Jesse

    As an adult, saying the Redwall books don’t hold up well is like saying Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain novels, Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series, etc. also don’t hold up well. The books were never intended for adults. They were meant for younger readers. “That Pippi Longstockings sure is a load of twaddle. I would have liked it when I was a kid, but now, pshhh…” You see the unfairness, yes?

    Ironically, I find Jacques’ creation more mature than Polansky’s despite the fact they were written for younger and older audiences, respectively. Jacques’ Redwall novels deal with the classic themes of honor, virtue, courage, etc., whereas Polansky’s is violent, cartoonish revenge. Or, from a broader view, Jacques’ is the more serious work, whereas Polansky’s is just a bit of cheesy fun…

    Different strokes for different folks, but I really struggle to see how Polansky’s novella is more adult than Redwall… (And please don’t quote the swearing and violence. Such elements technically qualify The Builders as “adult,” but it’s obvious a story needs more than blood and rough language to be considered truly mature…)

    • You make a very valid point that Jacques and Polansky are writing for far different audiences. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve read any Redwall novels (maybe I’ll go back to one for nostalgia’s sake one of these days), but they weren’t without their problems. For one, the books tended to be formulaic. On top of that, the firm line of “rats and weasels are always bad, all the time” could be sliiiightly problematic once you think about it too long. I know there were various exceptions here and there, but still.

      The biggest thing that’d separate Polansky from Jacques in this respect (besides the booze and blood) is a matter of thematics. Redwall books are pretty much always matters of black and white. Virtue, honor, etc. In The Builders, it’s all about the grey area between. The Captain is not a nice person (er, mouse), and neither are most of his buddies. The thing is, they’re dealing with someone WORSE, so it kind of evens out? Not quite as grim as, say, Game of Thrones, but it definitely draws from the same proverbial well.

      Which may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but hey.

  3. Jesse

    It’s impossible to argue the Redwall series is anything but formulaic. But I don’t think we can reasonably compare the Redwall series of twenty-odd books to Polansky’s novella. 1:1 seems more logical, yes? Reading your response, I ended up asking myself: does The Builders examine what you hint at, the so-called “the grayness of morality”, and if it does, does it examine the idea as much as Redwall looks at its themes of virtue, honor, courage etc.? I would say The Builders presents a facade of moral subjectivity, but I have doubts it examines or explores it in any significant fashion. Cartoonish fun seems the main thrust – Polansky himself even calling the story a one note joke. Jacques’ novel, on the other hand, while likewise with its own cartoonish levels, nevertheless develops its themes through certain story and character arcs and situations. I should also point out that regardless of how ethically gray the Captain’s crew in The Builders are, the reader never for one moment stops rooting for them in the exact same fashion they root for Mattias and the other heroes of Redwall abbey. It’s just as black and white (or perhaps black and grey?) – a simple dichotomy in the least. (And for the record, I believe the “twist” at the end of The Builders to be mere plot contrivance than any real commentary on the larger socio-political picture. Nihilism is so popular these days in fantasy – and it’s so easy to portray 🙂 )

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