Based on a review I read, I was really looking forward to this one. I love the title and the cover image is amazing. But of course, you can’t always judge a book by its cover. I’ve learned in the past that it’s a bad idea to get too excited about movies based on the trailer. The ones I look forward to the most usually don’t live up to my expectations and I walk away from the theater disappointed. So the fact that I was disappointed by this book may have more to do with my high expectations going into than the book itself.
As a quick aside, the tone of the book really reminded me of Everything Belongs to the Future by Laurie Penny. When I got to the end and saw Laurie Penny is mentioned in the acknowledgements, I was quite proud of myself for making that connection.
Anyway, the story takes place in Freedom, Iowa, a town that was abandoned when the economy took a downturn. It’s now inhabited by a Utopian community of anarchist squatters who grow their own food and generate their own power. Everyone can take whatever they need at the local store for free and the food tastes wonderful, because apparently farming is super easy to do.
There is mention of someone hoarding booze, but for the most part, anarchy works just fine. Most people don’t take more than they need and are happy to do their part to keep the community going. However, since we don’t really see anyone doing any work on screen and we never learn what the main characters do to contribute, it kind of feels like all the hard work just takes care of itself.
But everything isn’t all free tamales and fresh-picked salad in Freedom. About a year ago, some people in the town summoned a magical deer with three antlers called Uliksi to kill anyone who’s hateful, vengeful, or wields power over others. They do this in order to deal with a murderer in their midst. Uliksi not only kills the murderer, but also a rapist, as well as all the predator animals in the area. (It makes you wonder if overgrazing is a problem without predators to keep the grazing animals in check, but this never comes up.)
It seems a bit extreme to administer the death penalty for something as minor as being vengeful (after all, psychologists have found that 80 percent of people have fantasized about killing someone they don’t like), but the townsfolk are okay with it. That is, until Uliksi kills an apparently good person. After that, the community is divided over whether to unsummon the monster or keep it around.
I really liked that the monster in the story is a deer. The reversal of roles for predator and prey is a great idea. However, the way Uliksi works is confusing. Sometimes he kills someone immediately after they do something bad, other times he waits almost a year before killing them. Characters in the town fight with and shoot at each other without fear that Uliksi will come after them for doing so. One of the people who summons Uliksi killed her husband as well as some cops, but this apparently doesn’t count as wielding power over another for nobody ever considers the possibility that Uliksi would punish her for doing this. Uliksi’s actions really don’t make sense if you stop to think about it.
Danielle Cain is our viewpoint character. By her own admission, she’s a violent person who’s angry at the world. She’s hateful, vengeful, and when we first meet her, she’s threatening someone with a knife, so you’d think Uliksi would kill her on sight, but he doesn’t. She has a very black and white view of the world and is quick to judge and condemn others. At one point she says, “I believe in a messy, imperfect world where we just, collectively or individually, figure things out.” But her words and actions throughout the rest of the novella don’t bear this out.
I probably would have been more impressed with this book if I’d read it as a teen. It’s a very punk rock book, rebellious against any kind of authority. Cops are considered inherently evil. It gets really preachy and often felt pretentious. At one point, we’re told that when the school year ends, college kids throw everything away including furniture and computers and punks can just retrieve all these valuable items from the nearest dumpster. So there’s free computers sitting in dumpsters all across America just waiting for someone to grab them? Okay then.
On the plus side, there is a trans character and, unlike other books I’ve read recently, the diversity doesn’t feel forced. I also liked this description of what’s it’s like to have a panic attack: “A panic attack just drops you through the ice into freezing water. Even when you drag yourself out of the water, you’re left with the memory that forever and always, you’re walking on ice. It’s worse than anything.”
Unfortunately, the author seems to forget her main character experiences panic attacks, because this only happens once. Given the events of the novella, you’d think Danielle would have more than one panic attack over the course of the book. Lots of interesting things like this are brought up, but then forgotten about or brushed aside.
When Danielle gets to town, she mentions she’s friends with Clay, one of the people who summoned the demon. However, no one is in the least bit curious about what happened to him until much later. Also Danielle and Brynn’s relationship just suddenly happens. It’s love at first sight without any buildup or getting to know each other first. They transform from complete strangers into a couple almost immediately.
At one point, Uliksi traps Brynn and Danielle in a tree house for a full day, presumably because it wants to kill one of them, but then it turns out he trapped them there for no reason. Danielle says Clay committed suicide because he realized that he deserved to die for summoning Uliksi, but Doomsday, who also helped in the summoning, apparently doesn’t deserve to die. This novella is full of inconsistencies like this that you just have to ignore if you want to enjoy the book.
There isn’t much tension in the novella because we know who the villains are from the start and the heroes never really disagree with each other. There’s potential tension, as when Danielle briefly wonders if her new-found friends might be the real villains, but she quickly discards this idea. Also, we find out one of the villains is Vulture’s ex-boyfriend which could have added some tension, but instead Vulture just shrugs the relationship off. There’s another point when the heroes consider keeping Uliksi around, but Danielle shuts them down with a sentence and that’s that. The conflicts are resolved far too quickly to be interesting or realistic.
I’ve got to say, I didn’t understand the ending. At the end, the villain is trying to get the heroes to shoot at him, so Uliksi will kill them. But Danielle figures out that this would be using the demon itself as a weapon and the demon kills the villain for doing this. However, Danielle was also using the demon as a weapon against the villain, so why didn’t it kill her too? Just one more inconsistency to add to the pile. It’s also weird that the villain, who wanted to keep Uliksi around, turned out to be right all along.