Title: The Builders
Author: Daniel Polansky
Published: 3 November 2015
A missing eye.
A broken wing.
A stolen country.
Years go by, and scars fade, but memories only fester. For the animals of the Captain’s company, survival has meant keeping a low profile, building a new life, and trying to forget the war they lost. But now the Captain’s whiskers are twitching at the idea of evening the score.
I grew up on the likes of The Animals of Farthing Wood and Redwall, and Watership Down is one of my all time favourite novels. The Builders is about a group of animals so anthropomorphised that they wear clothes. That is where its resemblance to the stories of my childhood end, because these animals also carry guns, drink, smoke and swear. The Builders is Watership Down on crack, or Redwall if it were directed by Guy Ritchie; Lizard, Stoat and Two Smoking Barrels.
We follow a one-eyed mouse known only as The Captain, as he rounds up his old gang Ocean’s Eleven style to pull off one last coup, to succeed where they failed years before in the War of the Two Brothers by defeating the great toad and his malevolent, psychopathic minions who rule the Gardens. This includes the Captain’s nemesis, Mephetic, who is both literally and metaphorically a skunk.
The Builders is a masterpiece in pacing as it gains momentum and racks up the body count by introducing us to the rest of The Captain’s motley crew and the knowledge that he has a mole in the camp. Which is to say a traitor, although there is also a mole, a deceptively harmless looking character with a fondness for floral dresses by the name of Gertrude, who’s also a crime baron with the alias The Underground Man.
As bloody and dark as The Builders is, it’s also as you may be gathering, extremely funny. There is something inherently darkly amusing in the idea of creatures which look like Sylvanian Families blowing each other’s heads off anyway, and Polansky has a huge amount of fun playing with the tropes of both gangster stories and animal stories, creating a hilariously fantastical world in which a stoat and a badger trade affectionate insults over the ugliness of the stoat’s beret, and rats are the gang leader’s first choice for dispensable heavies, since it is noted that fecundity is one of the few virtues of their species.
We spend just long enough with the Captain’s crew to become guiltily (given their criminal pasts and indeed presents) and unfortunately (since The Builders has a body count that Stephen King himself would be proud of) attached to them before they launch their offensive against Mephetic and the Lord of the Gardens. The ensuing bloodbath is both fast and furious.
Set in the surprisingly seedy underbelly of the garden undergrowth, this is a story of loyalty, trust, backstabbing, betrayal and obsession and how, ultimately, it’s always easier to tear things down than it is to create. The Builders is a story of gang warfare but as you’ve never read gang warfare before.
GS Rating: 5/5
GS Blogger: Michaela Gray (@bookiesnacksize)