Danielle Cain has hitchhiked her way across the country to get to Freedom, Iowa, a small town which has been taken over by squatters after it died off. It's an anarchist utopia, except for the problem that it was the last place Danielle's friend Clay lived before he took his own life. Obviously something had pushed him to take drastic action, and she wants to find out what that is.
The town itself is mostly lovely. It has a "take what you need, contribute what you can," approach to food distribution and labour sharing. Everyone has their own house, tent or treehouse as they like. And they can all indulge in various artistic endeavours in a free environment.
There's only one problem with the town. It is occupied by Uliksi, a three-antlered demon deer, summoned by the townspeople to help protect it, which has now turned on them. It has a worrying tendency to rip out the hearts of both people and animals, the latter of which become members of its army, helping to defend it from the efforts of the townspeople. Mind you, since it only attacks people who have done wrong, not everyone wants it stopped.
I found reading this to be a weird experience. When I had my nose in it (metaphorically), I enjoyed it. It's got an impressive spread of characters, who all run the punk lifestyle and have those sort of deep and meaningful conversations you end up having at three in the morning, more or less all the time. Danielle is a punchy protagonist, well realised and someone you want to pay attention to, who's a step away from the usual urban fantasy heroine.
The society they've built works perfectly (except for the demon problem), though you're never necessarily sure quite how. The plot's spread out over such a short amount of time that you're never going to get that world-building you need to see how it all fits together. Just accept it and enjoy the ride.
At the same time though, as I went back for my second session reading this, I realised I had absolutely no memory of what was in the book. Literally none. I don't know if I was just over-tired, but until I actually re-opened the book, I couldn't tell you who anyone was or what they wanted. Other than Danielle's central perspective, everyone feels very shallow, and while they're nominally diverse in terms of typically marginalised socio-political groups, they effectively blend together, ruining the effect.
That's also a bit of a problem with the plotting, where while I can sort of see how the philosophy of the punk mindset gets to an anti-authoritarian ending, it feels a bit like the plot was solved with the power of being right. No build-up based on previous Chekov's guns, no major conflict that has to be overcome, it's just "yep, we're morally in the right, therefore we win".
It's especially frustrating given that part of that climax is a fight between the anarchic collective and the greater "traditional" society, on whom the collective still relies. Good luck posting that picture of your cool DIY tattoo on instagram with your phone in a soctiety that doesn't have capitalism.
It has a message to give, in the same way Star Trek tried to show us how a utopian society could work, but that at least gave us interesting stories. This does not.