Deviations series: Covenant (2007) and Appetite (2009)
by Elissa Malcohn
Reviewed by Scott T. Barnes

Covenant begins with TripStone, of the Masari people, hunting on Meat Day. She is a cannibal, and the members of the Yata peoples are her prey. In the world of Elissa Malcohn’s Deviations the Masari people cannot survive any other way--they have evolved to require Yata flesh the way some herbivores have evolved to digest only one kind of plant.

That is the Covenant between the peoples, one is the hunter and the other the god-providers. The ritual sacrifice has developed into a religion where the Yata are worshiped as gods by the very people who kill them. If it were any other way the Masari would have hunted the Yata to extinction, thus sealing the fate of both peoples.

TripStone is successful and kills the willing victim Ulik in ritualistic fashion. She skins him and preserves his body parts for all their valuable uses. And then she prepares to meet his family to explain to them how honorably he died and to give them his last words.

If this sounds like the kind of story that turns the stomach, you’re partially right, but in a good way. At times gut-wrenching and always thought provoking, the Deviations series manages almost to rise to the level of important literature. It is sure to move you. It may offend you. Unfortunately, stylistic weaknesses make it difficult reading; only a determined reader will read cover to cover and reap the rewards within.

First, let me tell you what’s right about Deviations. The characters are complex and multi-layered. How often have you read stories about wooden characters that only had one goal (save the princess!)? Everyone in Deviations has multiple and often contradictory motivations. They have to make hard choices. Sometimes they choose wrong.

The world is rich, believable and consistent. The situation is brimming with potential. And I, for one, have never read anything quite like it.

But those stylistic weaknesses...

Telling, telling, telling. Did someone mention showing? Oh, and more telling.

Malcohn can’t resist fleshing out her world (sorry, easy pun) with paragraph after paragraph of back story. At the lowest point, she actually tells us what percent of Masori children attempt to abstain from eating Yata meat. Every category is explained, from those that try for a little while to those that die of starvation. Writing 101: Dramatize this. If you can’t, have a character read it somewhere or explain it to another character through dialog. If it is not important, kill it.

Along those same lines, many of the most interesting scenes are summarized rather than dramatized.

As Covenant progresses the story grows more complex: a Masori named Ghost is trying to find a cure for the Masori addiction to the Yata, making him a criminal in both societies. TripStone is one of several Masori who brings Ghost Yata meat to keep him alive, a gift which he both needs and despises. Meanwhile, a renegade Yata army has formed which vows to destroy the Masori and swing the balance of power to the “gods.” Although they are nowhere near the hunters of the Masori, they have developed a secret weapon, a repeating rifle.

The story represents the end of an era, when the relationship between Masari and Yata becomes irrevocably changed. As in any such period, there are constituencies which profit from the status quo and others trying to capitalize on the chaos before a new equilibrium is reached.

The ending of Deviations: Covenant is satisfying if you make it that far. As I said, it can be tough going.

The recent release Deviations: Appetite begins just after Covenant. A terrible war has just taken place. The Masori people have been badly damaged, and now, for lack of Yata victims, they are starving. The Yata too are suffering. 

The balance has been upset and the consequences reverberate throughout the land, a land which TripStone, Ghost, and the other protagonists find is more complex than they thought. It turns out the Covenant has not been respected to the degree they thought.

Appetite is an easier book to read than Covenant, Malcohn’s hand feels more sure, and because (presumably) the reader has been here before we aren’t subjected to nearly as much “telling.”

Elissa Malcohn has created a richly textured world. Clearly she understand individual and group psychology, and her grasp of mankind’s history shows clearly in the make-believe Masari-Yata world.

All in all, the Deviations series offers rich rewards, but falls short of its potential for entertainment.

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