REVIEW: The Builders by Daniel Polansky

In Daniel Polansky‘s The Builders, the Captain is getting his crew back together for another tilt at the job they failed to complete ten years ago during the war of two brothers. The last time they were betrayed. This time, he’s going to find out who did it, and finish the job. In this magnificent Tor.com novella, Polansky delivers an almost perfectly paced and weighted story that every grimdark and dark fantasy fan needs to pick up.

The Builders by Daniel Polansky

Set in the The Gardens, and seen through the eyes of a series of animals, each more vicious than the last, The Builders is The Magnificent Seven set in a fantasy world. The Captain, an angry, bitter Mouse with a face of granite, wants revenge and calls his crew together at Reconquista’s bar, a tavern owner who followed the Captain into battle last time and now has had half of his body replaced with machines to keep him alive and moving. Bonsoir the Stout is a heartless, soundless killer with a savage sense of loyalty to the Captain. Boudica the Opossum is a sniper who just wants to be left alone in peace and quiet. Cinnabar the salamander is unbelievably fast and stacks corpses in a way few others can. Barker the badger (and his machine of destruction) has been manipulated back in for one last mission. Gertrude the mole can read minds and has built her own criminal empire. Elf the owl with a broken wing wants revenge on her ex-lover.

On the other side of the story, Mephetic the skunk is the high chancellor of The Gardens. He’s bored looking at numbers and ledgers and reports, the spoils of winning the war of two brothers. When news of his old foe, the Captain—who he beat to put his own patsy on the throne—being back in town ready to finish the job reaches him, it’s pure excitement. He gets Brontë the fox, Puss the cat, and The Quaker (a black snake and Elf’s ex-lover), three of the most vicious killers he knows and his problem solvers in The Gardens, ready for a fight.

The story Polansky writes in The Builders is a simple and fun one. The Captain gets his crew back together and goes to take out the winning brother, the one Mephetic put on the throne of The Gardens. Mephetic and his traitors have grown rich, while the captain has just grown more and more bitter. The two slides clash in a novella of badarsery, awesome one liners, treachery and betrayal, and, importantly, friendship and sacrifice.

The Builders is written in Polansky’s short punchy chapter style, with plenty of scene switches, snappy one liners, and neat twists to wrap up scenes. This is how a novella should be written, with the bigger character investment novellas have versus short stories, and without the 12+hr time investment of the normal fantasy book. What Polansky does really well is make you care about a cast of cut throats in a very short period of time–and with how vicious they each are, he does this brilliantly.

The Builders is pure reading enjoyment for the grimdark fantasy fan. I rarely read books twice anymore, but I have now read this twice and am thinking of lining up another re-read in 2025. I cannot recommend this novella enough.

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Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins runs Grimdark Magazine and loves anything to do with telling darker stories. Doesn't matter the format, or when it was published or produced--just give him a grim story told in a dark world by a morally grey protagonist and this bloke's in his happy place. Add in a barrel aged stout to sip on after a cheeky body surf under the Australian sun, and that's his heaven.