Published by Tor.com on November 3rd 2015
Our reviews of this author: A City Dreaming
Funny how I’m generally not big on anthropomorphism but at the same time I do seem to love a lot of books featuring fluffy, furry adorable sentient animals (Redwall, Watership Down, Mouse Guard, etc.) Thus the draw of Daniel Polansky’s The Builders won out, and it was also perfect because I’ve been meaning to check out his work for a long time.
The animals in this book are far from soft and cuddly, though. A mouse, a stoat, an opossum, a badger, a salamander, a mole, and an owl all walk into a bar. This however is not the beginning of a joke but a start of a Kill Bill-style tale of vengeance and bloody destruction. One upon a time, all of them stood united against a common enemy, until treachery destroyed the group from within. The last job they were all on together didn’t end so well, so now the battle-hardened mouse known as the Captain is rounding up his old pals again for one last hurrah.
But alas, you know what they say about the best laid schemes of mice and men. Before long, both bullets and fur will fly in abundance, as the Captain and his ragtag crew fight their way deep into the heart of enemy territory, facing up against a dastardly skunk, his trio of wicked henchmen, and the legions of his rat army.
Clearly, there’s lots to love here, and not just for the novelty of a gritty and darkly comedic shoot-‘em-up starring two groups of warring woodland critters. Polansky approaches the violence masterfully, portraying the anger of the Captain as something born out of more than simple desire for revenge. In fact, most of the characters were pretty well written, each given their own quirks and vices. I’m sure too that loads of great discourse could be had on the topic of animal instinct and its inevitable effects on the choices of these characters; it’s just a pity that the story does not explore this theme further.
While I had a good time on the whole, I did have a couple of minor concerns. Longtime readers of my reviews know I’ve never made secret the mixed feelings I have for the shorter, more restrictive length of the novella. Sometimes it works for me and sometimes it doesn’t, but when it comes to The Builders, once again my malaise with the format reared its ugly head.
First, I had myself a love-hate relationship with the short chapters and non-linear structure of the storyline. As a stylistic choice, it was very unique and made this book a fast read. Still, my admiration gradually waned towards the end when it proved more disruptive than beneficial to the overall flow of the plot. Polansky certainly has a strong sense for timing, but even then it’s easy to miss a few beats when working with a lower page count.
Second, there were so many characters introduced in such a short amount of time, I was given really no opportunity to connect with them, save only a few. The Captain, Bonsoir the stoat, Barley the badger and Cinnabar the salamander were among the well written ones, but a couple of the other members of the crew were lost in the chaos of gunfire and piles of corpses. It hasn’t been long since I finished reading, and already I’m having a hard time dredging my memory for their names and even their species. Admittedly, most of my enjoyment came from the story, the surface-level entertainment from following its many twists and turns, and not really out of any deep concern for the main players. The book was fun, so I was genuinely interested in learning how it ends, but I remained overall ambivalent about most of the characters’ fates.
Me, not care about whether fuzzy little animal characters lived or died? That…that just doesn’t feel right. At the same time, I’m not surprised at this distancing since it’s such a common reaction for me to have towards novellas with large casts. That said, the compelling story overwhelmingly makes up for a lot of areas which I felt were weaker. If this was a full-length novel, I’m sure I would eat it up. Polansky’s writing intrigued me, so picking up one of his other books like Low Town or Those Above is most definitely in my future. As for The Builders? All in all, I enjoyed myself. And as long as you’re not looking too deeply into the whys or the hows, I think you’ll have a good time too.
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