The Builders by Daniel Polansky (November 3, 2015)
Those who follow me know that I’ve been, traditionally, a fairly big fan of Daniel Polansky’s work. His Low Town series was a blast – dark, gritty as hell, harsh, and very vividly written. I enjoy his prose, the way he forms his characters – specifically the gruff type – and the unforgiving nature of his works.
The Builders is one of the flagship novellas for the new Tor.com imprint, and getting a heavy hitter like Polansky is a great step for them. The book itself is gorgeous and high quality, and I really like the look and feel of the end product. It definitely excites me for future works.
The book is billed as, and essentially is, Redwall meets…well, Polansky. A wide array of small-species animals function as if they were humanoids; they drink, they fight, they shoot guns, they talk amongst themselves. The animals themselves act with characteristics of their races, which are pointed out quite plainly at times, as well as their own unique personalities.
The story itself is a fairly straightforward, movie-western-style revenge plot, surrounding The Captain, and his group of uniquely-skilled critters. The Captain himself fits the archetype present in all of Polansky’s novels – the gruff, straight-talking, often brutal male lead that he writes so well. There are a lot fun little bits to the characters themselves, quirks, personality traits, but there is little time in the novella to explore these.
Overall, the story is quick, dirty, and fun. However, I had a few qualms with it – the mere premise of Redwall for Adults seemed to be what I took away from the previews of the book, but was not totally true in practice. It’s hard to really feel like a book with talking, acting wildlife critters is really as dark or gritty as Polansky’s writing usually is. Even beyond that, the book seems to be a bit unsure as to it’s target audience – it’s written in a more YA style overall, with talking animals, no profanity to speak of, and a generally simple storyline. However, there is rampant drinking of booze, some graphic violent scenes, and some overall themes that you would only find in the most aggressive of the YA category. I really was left feeling confused as to who this book was targeted at – is it a YA? Is it for adults? Somewhere in between?
The writing structure itself was a bit odd too – I have been very open about being a fan of shorter chapters, meaning I prefer a book with a ton of chapters, with hard breaks instead of just mid-chapter breaks (think the 150+ chapters of Name Of The Wind). However, Polansky took that to a new level in this book – it’s 215ish pages (very short, double-spaced, small book pages mind you), but has 53 chapters, some of which are little more than 2-3 sentences. While I kind of like this segmented, succinct style, it also just felt a bit strange to be hitting chapter 40+ when you’re 1.5 hours into a reading session. Additionally, there was an odd choice in viewpoint – the book was presented in a normal, third person style, however there were odd spots where it suggested a narrator. Example would be a line like (this is made up, not an actual quote); “The mouse hit the owl hard – hard for a mouse, I mean.” I could dig up actual quotes, but this is the gist – this happens multiple times during the book, and made me go “Wait, huh?”. Maybe I’m missing some literary device here, but it just felt a bit off.
Overall, I didn’t dislike the book, but it was not my favorite Polansky piece. I think if he intends to write more in this setting, it would be a nice setup piece, but a lot more needs to happen to round out the story. I recommend it to people who enjoyed Redwall, but are looking for a more edgy version, however I think it lacks the overall polish of some of it’s similar counterparts.
Rating: 3.5 / 5
The Darwin Elevator by Jason M. Hough (July 2013)
I tend to be a fairly narrow reader as far as genres go – I seem to be more in the 75% fantasy range, and 25% “other”, most of which are sci-fi. Unlike most nerds I know, I’ve never been a huge sci-fi guy; sure, I love Star Trek and things of that ilk, but I’m not hanging around quoting Star Wars, or even watching Cosmos for fun. When I do read sci-fi, well, I much prefer the people-centric variety, a more laid back version rather than the hard-science.
At a recent event, Jason described his writing/idea process as, paraphrasing, “realizing the world needed more books like John Scalzi writes”. I couldn’t agree more – Scalzi is hands down my favorite sci-fi writer. Why? He’s fun. You’re not getting much hard science (some, sure), and some of the items are downright “what?”-worthy, but the books have great characters, just enough science to be interesting, and are a blast to read. The Darwin Elevator lives up to this in every way.
The book follows captain Skyler Luiken and his crew; a group of specialized scavengers who are immune to the alien disease that has turned the world into, essentially, zombies (more like feral ghouls from Fallout). Very few “immunes” exist in the world, and are therefore highly important. The entire world has been infected with this disease except for a small area near Darwin, Australia, where the alien “elevator” appeared, giving an odd immune effect in the area of the elevator that the infected subhumans, or “subs”, cannot get past.
With the world in collapse, the fortunate survivors flock to Darwin to try and scrape by with what’s left, and the affluent few who are lucky/rich enough get to live up the ladder, in orbit, away from the plague afflicting earth. Due to lack of resources, items from the old world are highly valued, and therefore there’s a very high need for these items in order to continue surviving as a race, producing food and other necessities, repairing equipment, etc. It is, however, a very dangerous job, as the subhumans are prevalent in the old world areas, making every recovery mission one of life or death. Luckily, Skyler’s crew of immunes are skilled in this kind of thing; excellent planners, killers when necessary to be, and very practiced in their recovery missions. However, when a special mission involving a new scientist goes sideways, things begin to unravel…
The Darwin Elevator is, largely, everything I look for in a sci-fi book. It’s fast-paced without being breakneck; it has engaging, funny, visceral, ‘real’ feeling characters and dialogue; the overwhelming problems are epic in scale, effecting everyone and with very real consequences; and it’s unique and original enough to be exciting, without feeling the need to be too outlandish. There’s a bit of a feeling of ‘seen it before’ (similarities to the Beanstalk from Scalzi’s Old Man’s War come to mind, as well as, obviously, the subhumans from just about everything), however the book doesn’t feel derivative or cheesy. It’s got a bit of a comforting familiarity level, enough new things to keep you on your toes, but enough familiar things to allow you to focus on the story and the characters.
The writing itself is great – Hough has a very approachable prose style, without being simplistic. I enjoyed blasting through the book with relative speed, never feeling bogged down by unnecessary sentence structures, info dumps, or anything of the like. The dialogue was excellent – characters had their share of snappy one-liners and quips, but overall their conversations were very believable. The worldbuilding was well done – I felt like I really understood the condition the world was in; the squalor for those living in Darwin, scraping by; the fear of death or disease; the struggle to find supplies, food, etc needed to get by. When things started going downhill in the story, the concern for life and limb, as well as the status of earth, was apparent and gripping – I feared for my character buddies, both good and ‘bad’.
The Darwin Elevator is a book that gets better as it goes, that grows in quality as it grows in quantity. Speaking of – the length of the book was ‘just right’ to me; it was not an epic doorstopper, yet had enough length to flesh out the worldbuilding and characters, not skim over any aspects, but also not draw out any pieces unnecessarily. As you come to understand the setting and pieces, you come to appreciate them more and more. I’m excited to dig farther into this series, being as it feels very much like the type of book that is sorely needed in my sci-fi schedule.
Rating: 4.5 / 5