I’m a huge fan of Daniel Polansky‘s LOW TOWN series, so I might have claimed that I wouldn’t have bought The Builders if he hadn’t written it, but that’s not completely honest because there is something appealing about a story that features personified animals. I’m sure I’m not the only adult man who hasn’t outgrown them.
As it turned out, this novella is one the wildest stories I’ve ever read. I can’t explain it any better than to quote what other authors and reviewers have already said:
“..it’s as though Brian Jacques and Quentin Tarantino went drinking one night” ~Publisher’s Weekly.
For anyone that has ever watched a Sam Peckinpah Western, you can easily see the influence. (If you haven’t seen a Sam Pekinpah Western, you should.)
The Builders is a deliciously twisted kinda fun that I thoroughly enjoyed. I’m not sure I’ll ever look at a kid’s animal-themed novel or animated movie — like An American Tail or Charlotte’s Web — the same again, but I’m okay with that.
As Greg mentions, The Builders is a delightfully unexpected mash-up of a revenge-themed Western with a child-like (though not for children) story featuring personified woodland creatures.
We meet this gang of benign-looking but actually ferocious animals as they congregate at a tavern after being summoned by a mouse they call “Captain.” Little by little we learn that the gang suffered a defeat five years ago during a coup that deposed their leader. Now they want revenge… and it’s going to be ruthless. This story is full of dark scenery, betrayal, and brutal violence, but it also has an appealing black humor that lifts the mood nicely. Here is a scene in which Puss, a pretty white cat, is gloating about his victory over another creature:
Puss laughed uproariously and turned to the rats that he had brought as backup, who laughed as well, less because they got the joke and more because you laugh if the creature above you laughs — at least you do if you are a rat, who are creatures not unpracticed in obsequiousness. Puss giggled and guffawed, Puss chuckled and chortled, Puss cackled and tittered and howled, Puss all but ruptured his diaphragm in amusement.
It was a very loud laugh. It was not, however, the last one.
The short chapters and the engaging voice of the slightly intrusive narrator also lend the story an almost comedic feel. Here is our narrator, after several pages of describing the personality and actions of the shrewish (both figuratively and literally) train conductor:
The conductor had never before tried to enter the front carriage, had never even acknowledged its existence. That was against the rules, and the conductor, in case you had somehow missed the point by now, was the sort of creature who liked following them.
Corey Gagne, the narrator of Macmillan Audio’s 3.5 hour long audio version, did a great job. I also love the cover art by Richard Anderson.
You’re going to have to suspend disbelief for this one — don’t bother wondering how animals without opposable thumbs are handling swords and automatic weapons, don’t worry about their size differences or the animal instincts which dictate that certain species think of other species as prey. Don’t worry about any of that. Just enjoy the wild ride.