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.
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.