The Builders by Daniel Polansky © 2015, Tor 2015 trade paperback, fantasy
“Recoquista was cleaning the counter with his good hand when the double doors swung open. He squinted his eye at the light, the stub of his tail curling around his peg leg. “We’re closed.”
It’s shadow loomed impossibly large from the threshold, tumbling over the loose warped wood of the floorboards, swallowing battered tables and splintered chairs within it’s inky bulk. “You hear me? I said we’re closed” repeated, this time with a quiver that couldn’t be mistaken.
The outline pulled its hat off and blew a fine layer of grime off the felt. Then it set it back on its head and stepped inside. Reconquista’s expression shifted, fear of the unknown replaced with fear of the known-quite-well. “Captain…I…I didn’t recognize you.”
First, I noticed the cover by Richard Anderson. Then, the blurbs caught my eye: “The Magnificent Seven meets Wind in the Willows” and “The Wild Bunch meets Watership Down”. There’s some truth in those blurbs, but they leave an impression that’s not completely accurate.
The book begins with a tough old mouse named The Captain going to one after another of his old gang, telling them it’s time, and where and when to meet. It feels very similar to the first part of the film The Magnificent Seven, with Chris gathering together a group to do a job. It’s well done, and soon we have a stoat, badger, mole, owl and others meeting in a seedy inn, ready to plot and plan.
There was a ruler of the prosperous, peaceful land, but upon his death his two sons wouldn’t share the land, each wanted it all for himself. So they began a war, using mercenaries as soldiers. The Elder brother (by a few minutes) won out, but then the Younger staged a coup and took over, the Elder and some of his troops escaping to the southern lands. The Captain led the Elder’s mercenaries, and now he’s gathering the core group for a try at taking the land back.
So far so good, and each of the Captain’s group has a specialty; swordsman, crack rifle shot, knife thrower, etc. But the leader of the Younger’s soldiers is also smart, and has his own small group of specialists.
So journeys, tricks, and battles ensue, and I liked many of the characters and the way Polansky portrays them. The book could have used more world building, more depth of setting. It could also have used more depth of plot, and in 218 pages there should have been room for it. I enjoyed this book, and could recommend it except for one thing. It didn’t end, it stopped.
On the last page, in the Acknowledgements, the author makes the statement “The Builders has a special place in my heart, being essentially a one-note joke that remains funny for me five-odd years after I came up with it—thanks to you, the reader, for indulging my adolescent sensibilities.”
Maybe that’s why the book just stops. Maybe the last line of the book was the punch line. I just wish Polansky had taken this story with neat characters, bursting with potential, and given us a real ending. I liked this a lot, until the end. If Polansky picked this back up and carried it forward, I’d be early in line to read what he does with it, as long as he doesn’t try to tell another joke instead of writing a novel, beginning to end.