I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Builders by Daniel Polansky
Published by Tor.com on November 3 2015
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
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The nitty-gritty: A story about gun-toting animals, with an unexpected combination of violence and wit, and some emotional moments as well.
“That’s an ugly hat,” Barley started.
Bonsoir’s eyes went wide with mock fury. “This is the greatest hat anyone has ever worn,” he said, pointing at his beret. “This hat was a gift from the Emperor of Mexico, after I saved his life from a rampaging skunk. He begged me to stay on as his chief adviser, but I said, “Emperor, Bonsoir cannot be caged, not even with bars of gold.”
“Mexico doesn’t have an emperor.”
“That is Mexico’s misfortune, for all of the greatest countries have emperors.”
The Builders was my first of the Tor.com novellas, and I think I picked a pretty good one to start with. Polansky tells a familiar human story—one of double crosses and revenge—but with animal characters, which pushes this into the speculative fiction category. But you won’t see any cute, cuddly animals here. Instead, Polansky populates his tale with woodland creatures of all sorts: rats, mice, stoats, moles, snakes, skunks, badgers and more, and these creatures just happen to be bloodthirsty killers. Oh, and they also like a good whiskey now and then.
The Captain is a battle-weary mouse who lost an eye once on a job, and now he aims to get revenge on his nemesis Mephetic the skunk. In order to do so, he must round up his old crew and convince them to help out: Bonsoir the stoat, Cinnabar the salamander, Barley the badger, Reconquista the rat, Boudica the opossum and Elf the owl. Their goal? Well, it’s payback time, and Mephetic is in the crosshairs—literally. And wouldn’t it be sweet if they also discovered who ratted them out last time? As the crew assembles, and the bullets start to fly, it becomes clear that payback is a bitch—for both sides.
I have to get this out there: if you are an animal lover, and you have trouble distancing yourself from poor little rats and badgers getting blown away by bullets, then this might not be your type of story. However, if you can look past the fact that these are animals, and see them as humans (because they certainly talk and act like them), then you will appreciate Polansky’s creative storytelling and dry wit. This story is full of black humor, and I couldn’t help but laugh, despite the growing body count.
The Builders is very short on plot, however, so despite the fact that I enjoyed the twists and turns of a group of animals seeking revenge for their last “job gone wrong,” not a whole lot happens in the way of a storyline. I would say that’s because of the novella’s length, but I’ve read short stories that deliver a powerful punch in only a few pages. I was hoping for a bigger reveal at the end, but it sort of fizzled out for me. However, I did like the ironic explanation of the title at the end, which I can’t really discuss because, well, it is the last line of the story! But you’ll see what I mean when you read it.
I loved that each animal has his own personality and weakness, because they are actually flawed humans dressed in feathers and fur and teeth and claws. As long as you can just go with this idea, you’ll be entertained. I was mostly successful with this, until my mind started to wonder “where did they get all their animal-sized guns?” I don’t know why that one thought kept intruding into the narrative, but alas, I guess I wasn’t completely successful in suspending my disbelief.
And be ready for some shocking violence. These animals are hard-core. In one scene, the Captain has just fired a round into the belly of one of his enemies, but they proceed to have a civil conversation before the poor bloke dies. Ah, gallows humor! How I love thee.
A couple of the characters really tugged at my heartstrings, in particular Barley the badger, and I was surprised by how sad some of the deaths were. Which means, I suppose, that in the short span of this novella, I came to care for some—although not all—of the characters.
In any case, I look forward to reading more from Daniel Polansky. As I was perusing Goodreads, I realized I already own one his novels, Those Above, and I’ve heard really good things about his Low Town series. I’ll be checking those out soon for sure.
Big thanks to Tor.com for supplying a review copy.