Classic Review: The Builders
The Builders by
Daniel Polansky is that rare and beautiful thing, a book that is more
than the sum of its parts. I am not going to pretend that this story
has any hidden depths, quite the opposite, it is a simple story with
some simple twists, written with a skill and panache that elevates
the story above a mere telling of events.
So looking at the book on that surface level we have some archetypal characters that will be easily recognisable to fans of war stories, westerns and the fantasy and scifi books that try to emulate them. Every character is hard-bitten and tough, often near to the point of absurdity, and the vast majority of the book is spent introducing all of the players who are going to be catching a bullet, knife or stick of dynamite to the face over the remainder of the fairly thin plot.
Breaking things down a little bit further we can look at the component stories that led to this one. There is a framework of a straightforward fantasy story involving deposed kings and civil wars fought by proxies. The actual mechanics of the action are almost pure western with the quickest draw and the character with the steeliest glint in their eye winning out each time.
The fact that all of the characters are animals introduces an element from children’s books that is rarely seen brought into adult fiction and the juxtaposition of hard-drinking hares, murderous mice and war-weary badgers provides at least some buffer between the reader and the reality of the story, a buffer that is expertly decorated throughout the plot with humorous asides about the natures of the creatures involved. The characters themselves would have functioned perfectly well as human characters in a human world, but without the degree of separation that their animal nature provided, much of the internal conflict of the book would have been weakened. When a human talks about their baser instincts, you know precisely what they mean, when a mole does, it is a whole different story.
The writing, more than anything else, is what sold me on The Builders, where most modern stories are content to lay out events without too much editorialising, this book calls back to an older tradition when the author spoke to the reader, where the description was a monologue. It is handled with a light hand, the heady pace of the plot stops it from bogging things down and it fills up the prose with flavour. It was the perfect choice for the subject matter, combining a nostalgia for good old fashioned stories with the dark nihilistic impulses of modern genre literature. It may take the reader a moment to fall into the rhythm of Polansky’s writing, but once you do the experience is exuberant.
Normally I reserve these “classic” reviews for books that have been around the block a few times without getting the attention that they deserve. This is more or less the first time that I have highlighted a book from within the last decade for your attention. There is a very good reason that I picked out this book. You would be doing yourself a favour by reading it.