For a generation of fantasy fans, Redwall was a middle-grade touchstone. Brian Jacques’ long-running series about sword-wielding rodents was required reading for young geeks in training in the ’90s.
I’m a bit older, and missed out on the Redwall phenomenon, so for me Daniel Polansky’s new novella, The Builders, harks back to the much older adventures of Mr. Toad and Ratty in Kenneth Grahame’s classic The Wind in the Willows.
If they were adapted by Quentin Tarantino, that is.
“Maybe it was the ragged scar that ran from his forehead through the blinded pulp of his right eye. Maybe it was the grim scowl on his lips, a scowl that didn’t shift a hair as the Captain moved deeper into the tavern. The Captain was a mouse, sure as stone; from his silvery-white fur to his bright pink nose, from the fan-ears folded back against his head to the tiny paws held tight against his sides. But rodent or raptor, mouse or wolf, the Captain was not a creature to laugh at.”
The Captain was once the right-hand mouse for the Lord of the Manor, a toad whose younger brother sought to usurp the throne. Five years later, he is a one-eyed drifter, his gang of woodland creatures betrayed from within and scattered across the kingdom. But he is still driven by his thirst for revenge on the skunk who usurped his position and overthrew his liege.
So the Captain reassembles his gang Bonsoir, a French stoat and assassin; a hulking, Gatling-gun wielding badger named Barley; Boudica the patient, sharpshooting opossum; the cold-blooded salamander Cinnabar; the criminal mastermind Gertrude the mole; and Elf, a mysterious owl who could still move silently despite her useless wings. The ragtag band of killers sets out to reclaim the throne of the Manor and kill the skunk Mephitic and his brutal henchmen Brontë the fox, Puss the cat and a particularly nasty rattlesnake named The Quaker.
The Builders is a bloody and brilliant tale of revenge. It is not only a tribute to those talking animal books of yore but to the classic films of Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. You can practically hear the Ennio Morricone soundtrack playing in the background.
And it is just as much fun as its influences. You can feel Polansky’s love of the source material running freely throughout the brisk story. Polansky gives just enough background to flesh out the characters without interrupting the flow of The Builders. We feel Barley’s yearning to put his killing ways behind him; the crew’s mistrust of the predatory Elf; and Bonsoir’s insecurity, hidden behind braggadocio and a Maurice Chevalier accent. The Captain, with his double-barreled cynicism and cigar is all Eastwood.
And I can’t forget the cover.
Richard Anderson is rapidly becoming my favorite cover artist, and his work for The Builders is easily the best I’ve seen this year.
It may not be the best book I’ve read this year, but The Builders is easily one of my favorites. ~~ Michael Senft