I’ve heard a lot about Daniel Polansky – his fantasy novels were praised by many authors I like and value, covering the subgenres and topics I enjoy. But I was tired of grimdark – still am, to some extent – and I put off acquainting myself with his undeniably grim and dark worlds. Which is why I was so pleasantly surprised when I found this little novella :). Well, “novella”: over 200 pages, a solid book in the old times.
The Builders is a work of fun and fancy; it reads like a prolonged joke turned serious and elaborate and, in the process of altering it, dear to its creator. Even its title is an inside joke, as the story it tells is about destruction, not creation. It’s a crossover of western and The Wind in the Willows, with Polansky openly acknowledging his creative debt to Sam Peckinpah, Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone. It’s Tarantino meets Ocean’s Eleven in Federick Forsyth’s world, because at some point we cross the threshold of gleeful wallowing in graphic violence and go a bit beyond into the realm of old, battered and indomitable characters. A bit like Dirty Harry. Can you uphold the law by breaking it? Is there a purpose in destruction?
But to the point. The Builders is an extremely bloody and violent tale about a mouse, a stout, a possum, a badger, an owl, a mole and a salamander. The Magnificent Seven, reunited five years after a terrible defeat that killed most of their friends, maimed many of those still alive and shattered their dreams. Now they are getting back together to reclaim what they once thought theirs, because of boredom and/or loyalty, of hatred, but first and foremost – for a sweet, cold vengeance. Their arch enemy is a skunk, aided by a fox, a cat, and a rattlesnake. There are also toads and voles and weasels, and lots and lots of rats, who were given the sad but necessary role of the Redshirt Army.
We never learn what exactly happened five years earlier; the picture is painted only in the broadest of strokes: war and murder and betrayal, conflicted loyalties, or no loyalties at all – and politics. The past inevitably drives the present, shapes it and gives it momentum, but at the same time it stays in the background; it is only the canvas on which the events of now unfurl with precision and attention to detail. And the picture they paint is mostly red.
As in any western worth its name after Unforgiven, there is no truly good or bad; the sides are grey and muddled, the goals the same for both of them, and even their methods are pretty similar. And yet, and yet, we feel compelled to root for one of them. For the losers, for the haters, for the lean and mean who attack the fat and corrupt out of spite and vengeance, and the need to even out the scales. And so we follow the ragtag band of the Capitan, a one-eyed mouse of stony face, fearsome scowl and very few words. I can’t explain why, but whenever I try to imagine him, I see Clint Eastwood with whiskers. The rest of his crew consists of an obnoxiously French stoat called Bonsoir, a quiet and, despite his cold amphibian blood, impossibly fast killer Cinnabar, a crime genius Gertrude, her sharp mind hidden behind deceptively befuddled physiognomy of a near-blind mole, a slightly unhinged one-winged owl called Elf, one deadly and deceptively relaxed sniper, possum Boudica, and a friendly badger Barley, his inner mass-murderer lurking deep beneath the surface of his serene eyes and placid expression. I could give each of them a human face, assign each of them a role played countless times before – because Polansky’s characters are archetypal, and their strong adherence to the stereotypical is a conscious and well executed choice of the author. There is a certain satisfaction in reading about characters who, like Polansky’s “builders”, are designed to be unoriginal, to conform to every literary rule and norm – but only when the job of creating and breathing life into them is well done. Which, fortunately, is the case with Polansky’s novella.
The Builders’ language is a curious mix of deadly seriousness and postmodern irony. Pointing a finger at itself, openly laughing at the stereotypes it employs, Polansky’s book is a self-contained, endless reference. It could have been tiring in a book 600-pages long. On the 200-odd pages you don’t have time to get bored or irritated by it – especially because the plot unfolds very swiftly, full of bloody action and cut into short chapters and interludes, each with its own self-aware title. It’s well written, with efficiency and speed in mind, and it delivers those qualities without hiccup, but with more than a few well-placed references or inside jokes instead.
To sum it up, Polansky’s The Builders is a quick and satisfying read. A little gem for all bloody-minded fans of gritty westerns and/or mean animal characters. If you have a bit of free time on your hands and wish for a bit of tasteful (did I mention bloody?) escapism, The Builders is definitely a good choice for you. Plus, it has a really gorgeous cover :).