A reunion of friends or allies for one last job, catching up with each other after a time apart: not an uncommon theme in fiction, but one proven effective across all media of storytelling. It’s proven again here in The Builders, Daniel Polansky’s fantasy novella featuring a one-eyed mouse, an injured owl, a stoat, and an opossum (among other intelligent, talking animals). This reunited gang of adventurers is out for revenge against the enemy that split them apart.
The story begins in a bar where the Captain (just the Captain, no other name is needed) awaits the return of his allies. As each of the players are introduced, Polansky reveals small details about each character. After the Captain, we’re introduced to perhaps the most over-the-top character: Bonsoir the stoat. Because a talking mouse with an eye-patch named simply the Captain isn’t enough. As the narrative indicates, there are many animals like a stoat, but stoats are unique. To say the stoat has a flair for the dramatic is to say the sun gives off light; the sun is unavoidable in life, and Bonsoir is unavoidable in this story. As it should be.
Polansky goes about bringing in the other players (a mole, an owl, a salamander, and more) apace, connecting them to the Captain or to the events that led to the group’s separation in a very clever fashion. He also accomplishes a fine balancing act with the characters, doling out in equal measure details from the animals themselves as well as showing us how others view them. Each member of the crew has a specialty, and in many ways, the Captain’s gang is an elite forces team.
Polansky’s story has the twists and turns of a crime thriller like The Usual Suspects and the casual violence of a Joe Abercrombie novel… with a cast of talking animals. The brilliance lies in the straight-forwardness of the plot, and in the utterly serious nature of the story that the otherwise absurd premise might lead one to view as suspect, under any other circumstances.
There’s a philosophical question at the heart of this story, too: Can people change? Are we always going to revert to our baser natures? Can an individual who was once a killer ever escape that violent past and eschew their violent impulses? The Captain is hoping his former team members can’t, because that is what is required to see this revenge plan to its end. Polansky brilliantly brings life to that essential question through the characters, as some give in easily to their past behaviors, while others struggle against it.
Considering this as a story of “getting the band back together,” I couldn’t help but find resonance with one of my early favorites in the fantasy genre, Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance Chronicles. Like Weis and Hickman, Polansky’s characters have a deep, rich history that is only initially revealed through small details and hints. They come “onto the stage” fully formed, in that respect. Polansky’s characters are also immediately recognizable and very magnetic. I wanted more of them; I would follow these rapscallions on any mission, especially a mission of revenge to set right what was wronged in the past…
The Builders is a brilliant revenge tale, striking a perfect equilibrium between over-the-top premise and the plot and characters taking themselves completely seriously—unsurprisingly, there’s a thick cord of black humor throughout the tale as well. This story is the perfect length, and if it is any indication of what to expect from Tor.com Publishing, then I’ve got some more reading to do. This was also my first experience reading Daniel Polansky’s fiction and it will not be my last.
Rob Bedford lives in NJ with his wife and dog. He reviews books and moderates forums at SFFWorld, has a blog about stuff, and writes for SF Signal as well as here at Tor.com. If you want to read random thoughts about books, TV, his dog, and beer you can follow him on Twitter: @RobHBedford.