A Bunch of Wild, Filthy Animals (A Review of Daniel Polansky’s ‘The Builders’)

Review by Curtis Cole

                Dark fairy tales, of the kind told by either gothic horror artists or immature teenagers, are difficult affair to create; reorienting the genre’s hallmarks—anthropomorphized animals, a kingdom in distress, and a valiant hero—can be hard to reconcile without overcompensating and presenting ‘shock value’ literary devices. Thankfully, an enclave of authors has no trouble in successfully redefining the tropes usually associated with talking forest critters and bedtime stories. Skilled with the pen, these people blend genres to create a prism within the pages of their tale which warps the clichés into something decidedly not clichéd.

Daniel Polansky and his short but lovable read The builders marks him as one of these caveat authors. Redeploying the idea of a western to fit a grim fantasy-steampunk endeavor, Polansky conjures up a pack of warrior animals out for revenge. Led by the unscrupulous Captain, a war-hardened mouse who have seen the worst of a terrible civil war, a ravenous band of trained killers, some of the best in the land, seek out traitors and foes alike to settle unfinished business and free the land of tyranny.

As far as plot goes, there is not much more to tell: The Captain, out for blood years after a devastating coup decimated his ranks, assembles his crack team in an effort to avenge old wounds. Violence ensues. The end. Nothing more to say on that front; in fact, the narrative is conservative in its dissemination, preferring to rely on the revelation of the bare minimum in order to convey its darkly tinted message.

In fact, this sort of conservatism is the only such variety of conservatism that I condone. Why? Because it gets the job done.

This was a novel which did not need an elaborate backstory. While some writers of epic fantasy feel the need to pen an entire world down to the dynamics of a minor tribe’s understanding of arithmetic, Polansky decides instead to go for the literary jugular and let the stylistic narratological blood spread. Tone, atmosphere, and character development are all tied together; how characters interact while intoxicated, for example, is conveyed through the tone of the interactions, while the atmosphere that repeated interactions display, mark, in turn, how certain characters behave under specific circumstances, something which then fleshes out that character in a manner most authors need at least three times as many pages in order to achieve.

Said less cryptically, there is no narrative fat. Chapters are short and to the point. Each chapter displays a different facet of the Captain’s crew and builds the unit up; plot points are not left to wander the pages—every time a character opens their mouth—sober or drunk—it is to communicate something worth reading, while the actions which led them to that communication, in turn, detail aspects of their history and personality. Temporality is paced and is not afraid to accommodate the jumpy chapters by pushing ahead or pulling back in order to chronicle the course of most events relevant to the Captain’s quest for revenge.

The payoff for this writing style is a clique of superbly realized animal pseudo-humans. The scenarios perfectly display their history, talents, and personality without the stream of information becoming overbearing or preachy. One easily grasps the sensation that these killers have seen better days, that their lives have already passed their respective primes, and that this foolhardy suicide mission to avenge debts, is the last significant ride of their overdue lives. Life is precious in these pages and can be snuffed out suddenly though not without a fight. Lacking the pompous grandiose of George R.R Martin’s prose, Polansky manages to convey the fragility of the world and characters, while still retaining their aura as military veterans. A demanding stylistic to be sure and one which could easily veer the text off of a cliff if nudged too far in one direction.

Polansky’s text manages well, however, and recreates our world in all its imperfections, if not along some backward ideological assumptions about human-esque behavior. We see racism among the animals of the world (between warm and cold-blooded creatures), militaristic fervor and aristocratic decadence, as well as all the ills of non-gift based economies (poverty, nationalism, crime, etc.). If the reader was not constantly, yet subtly, reminded of the animalistic reality of the characters and world, I am sure many would forget that they are reading about owls, badgers, mice, and the rest.

But, to conclude, Polansky’s narrative is thrilling and engaging. Truly, I found very little worth complaining about; less, even, worth writing about. Although, if I were to dive deeper into this text in exploration of some of the histories and references, I may find more faults (such as with possible allusions and stereotypes), presently, I find little reason to do so and pry into that corner of literary criticism which baffles the ignorant (that of “reading too deeply” or “over-reading”). As it stands, Polansky’s The Builders is an enjoying jaunt into oblivion, one that anyone with a sweet tooth for dark fantasy with violent Western inflections will be able to enjoy.

The Builders

Daniel Polansky

226 pages[1]. Published by Tor.com. $2.99 (Kindle), $4.99 (Audible audiobook), $9.89 (Paperback)[2]. 2015.

[1] Page estimates taken from Amazom.com

[2] Prices were accurate at the time of writing.


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