Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Building Suspense

Review: The Builders by Daniel Polansky


I have never said to myself in a moment of quiet introspection: "What I really need to read is a novel about anthropomorphic animal revolutionaries." So when I first saw this book touted as such in my Twitter feed, I ignored it.

It kept coming back. 

Each day I would see another retweet of the cover, or a remark about the characters. ("One pales to think how Gandalf would fare in a Polansky book...") People I trusted had read this book, and were talking about it. And though it was $13 in print, it was less than $3 in Kindle format.

I bought it and began reading, right in the middle of a comic mil-SF binge (Asprin's Phule's Company, etc.). The dissonance between this darkly wry fantasy and the wildly comedic pun-fest that is an Asprin novel made the first third of The Builders hard going. I put it down a lot. 

And I kept coming back. 

Neither Disney cute nor morally uplifting, The Builders is essentially a brutal tale of killers finding a way to do what they do well. Usually, novels about animals are really about people. I'm sure you can think of exceptions, but I would be hard-pressed to do so.

Once in a while, as with Kia Heavy's Domino (which I reviewed in Defending the 'Hood), each character's animal nature is just as important to the plot as the clues about human society. More typically, the animals in such stories are loosely-disguised humans, and you can ignore the form of the creature for its actions.

The latter is the style of The Builders. Close one eye, and the Captain is not a mouse, but Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven. Boudica is no 'possum sniper, she is Charlize Theron in Aeon Flux. Bonsoir the Frenchman-stoat walks a James Coburn line through a Duck, You Sucker! maze, complete with treasure vault at the end. Indeed, even the villains of the piece do not need rat, skunk, snake, or toad personas to be relatable as humans.

The crew the Captain is assembling has tried and failed to foment revolution once before. Defeated by a traitor within, they have scattered to the winds. And yet, for each the Captain poses a undeniable challenge: Can you bear not to be involved as we try again? For Barley, the pacifist badger, he offers the opportunity to use his beloved machine gun. Cinnabar the salamander yearns to prove his quick-draw speed once more. Elf the crippled owl wants revenge for a lover's betrayal. 

The flavor is spaghetti-western, bad-guy vs. bad-guy. The plot has more twists than a killer roller-coaster track, and is just as thrilling. 

And if you tell me you foresaw the ending, I'll simply reply, you lie.