The Builders

February 22, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads)

buildersThe Builders by Daniel Polansky


One of the blurbs for this book described it as being a blend of Redwall and Unforgiven, which is apt, since this is a Medieval western story, populated with anthropomorphic animals. I say Medieval because there’s a lord, and there are swords, and I say western because there are guns, it’s violent, and the gang is getting back together to take revenge on a lord who wronged them in the past. And it’s dark. It’s about death and revenge and cruelty and violence, featuring a mouse, a badger, a stoat, and an opossum, among other animals. It’s an odd mish-mash of ideas that shouldn’t work, but somehow it does.

Polansky has the writing skills to pull this sort of book off. There’s a dark wit embedded throughout the novella, in the narrative, the dialogue, and the characters, and it fits the tone of the story perfectly. He doesn’t get bogged down in too many details, but neither does he gloss over his setting or characters when building up the plot. It’s mostly action, meaning that the story feels light, but that doesn’t make it unmemorable. Certain scenes and characters will stick with you for a while after reading the book.

Speaking of characters, there are a lot of them in this novella, and most of them are going to be a different animal. I regret not making a cheat-sheet of all the characters featured in the story, just so I could keep up with who was who, and who was what. Polansky’s characters are distinct, but it took a while for me to get them fixed in my head. I have to give Polansky credit for putting enough details in the narrative to remind you of who was what, by either sometimes referring to them as their animal type, or by focusing on what made that animal useful for the mission. The characters’ animal types weren’t chosen lightly.

The thing is, if you’re going to populate your story with anthropomorphic animals, there needs to be a good reason for it. Otherwise it’s just a gimmick. This could have just as easily been written using human characters without losing too much of its impact, and I can’t see that any of the animal characteristics of the characters couldn’t have been applied to humans. It’s a gimmick that works, mind you, but I’m puzzled as to why Polansky went this direction at all.

(Also, if you’re going to go that route with your story, you have to know your animals. Guinea pigs don’t have tails.)

For all the ways this story could have been ridiculous, it’s not. It’s a serious tale, with serious concerns and serious consequences, that just happens to be populated by animals. Why? That’s a good question. If you read it, and come up with an answer to that question, I’d love to hear it.

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