There are things that I'm not particularly fond of in my fiction. The tropes and settings of the American West for one. Talking animals as characters instead of people for another. A scene that ends with "Now here's the plan...." so that the characters know what they're doing but you don't. Not that I can't enjoy a good book that has these things. I loved Karen Memory. Narnia and Animal Farm are among my formative influences. And there are some books where keeping the reader in the dark does not cone across as an artificial way of ratcheting up the suspense. Still... I have to push harder to get into books that utilise these things.
Which made Daniel Polensky's novella The Builders a difficult book for me to get into at first. What helped pull me in was the long slow introductory sequence best described as "getting the band back together again." It starts, as many westerns do, in a bar, when a mouse with great personal presence, called only the Captain, walks in and asks Reconquista the barkeeper, a severely disabled rat, if he's the first to arrive. Flashbacks taking up fully one-quarter of the text show the Captain tracking down all the former members of his gang. Some years ago, it seems, they undertook a task of some sort. They were betrayed, and failed, and split asunder. And now the Captain intends to try again.
It's quite a fascinating collection of characters in animal form - a stoat, a salamander, a raccoon, a badger, a mole, an owl, and of course, a mouse - and it is made quite clear from the start that these are not cute kiddie farm animals. They are ruthless and accomplished killers. The enemy, rather appropriately, is a skunk, and his agent, a snake.
This is a brutal and bloody tale of revenge, of finishing what was started no matter the cost - keep in mind, this is a western, and there are seven gunslingers riding on this trail.
There's some clever craft in the writing of this novella. Polansky quite skillfully uses the well-known traits of the various animals to flesh out the characters in a way that makes up for the difficulties normally faced in handling so many key characters in a relatively short work. There's the slightly folksy tang of the oral storyteller in the way he uses language, and in the way the novella is structured, with short chapters and frequent diversions, that adds to the sense that this could be a story told around a campfire on a cold prairie night.
In the end, Polansky gives us something that is part fable, part legend, tapping into well-worn western tropes from a hundred movies with a generous hand - and subverting them, not unlike Clint Eastwood's classic deconstruction of the western hero in The Unforgiven. The question at the heart of the story is familiar - can a stone cold killer ever change, become something different? Be a builder, not a destroyer? Polansky's answer can be found in the rubble of buildings and the bodies strewn across the battlefield at the end, when the heart of a place once known as The Gardens becomes little more than a mass grave.