Review of A Time Never Lived by Terry Lynn Defino
I just finished reading Terry-Lynne DeFino's epic fantasy, A Time Never Lived.
A Time Never Lived is the second in a series that started with Finder. Finder is about Ethen Finder, a kind of psychic who can sense things when he holds objects in his hands. I haven't read Finder. A Time Never Lived is a stand-alone book, but I do think reading Finder first would've added to my understanding of the richness of this world. DeFino builds a remarkably textured world, complete with competing and interdependent mythologies, old and new religions, a great culture, the Napooniri, now reduced to slavery, and a language created specifically for the world of the book. The whole is so complex that it's sometimes a bit much to keep it all straight; I feel that if I had read the first book I wouldn't be at such a disadvantage.
Best thing in the book are the dragons. (I would have given a spoiler warning, but you can see them on the cover.) There is a writing-rule out there that books shouldn't start with a prologue, but DeFino shows us how to break that rule: start with an event that's like a teaser on TV, hook us with it, and then keep us breathlessly waiting until the main plot of the novel catches up to that teaser of an event. In this case the teaser involves dragons. That hooked me!
Of the various cultures that make up the world of DeFino's series, the one that intrigues me the most is that of the Napooniri. Once a great culture, the Napooniri are now all slaves, taken in purges that have left trauma marks on the souls of all the characters, whether they are Napooniri or not. As in most slavery narratives, some Napooniri in this story manage to escape and do well living a fringe, bohemian-style existence; another character manages to pass as a member of some other race, (I could say which but I'm trying to avoid spoilers here). The tattoos that identify a Napooniri slave return to haunt the characters, and by extension the reader, throughout the book:
“See those wavy lines closest to the corners of his eyes? They mean he was born in a large city on the Bihn Iabba River, probably Kinnai. I’ll wager he was taken in that Purge.” “That wasn’t all that long ago. He must have been old even then.” “It’s a wonder he didn’t end up on the salt flats.” She pointed. “Slave marks start in the corners of the eyes and go out. That’s how you follow the path a slave has taken. Every job he’s ever been trained for is etched into his face, every owner he’s ever had. I don’t know owner marks. There’s a record of them somewhere. But I do know some of the trade symbols. See there? Rilli has been a camel tender, a goatherd, and a dockworker. I think this one here, the one that kind of looks like a fish, actually means he was a gutter, not a fisherman. I might be wrong. The one there near his nose is his last position. Gateman.” Vic nodded. “For the Luash household. That’s how Ethen met him. He told me all the men in that household were eunuchs, but see,” he pointed, “Rilli doesn’t have the crescent.”
DeFino, Terri-Lynne (2012-05-21). A Time Never Lived (Kindle Locations 180-190). Hadley Rille Books. Kindle Edition.
It was the Napooniri who originally worshipped the Dragon-Gods that have now, apparently, abandoned them, or maybe they've died out as the Napooniri are dying out. That is the mystery that Ethen and Zihariel set out to solve in the teaser episode. Then they disappear, and the story is taken over by Ethen's son Vittorio, who eventually decides he needs to set out and Find his father. He is accompanied by an amazing assortment of characters: a wild woman who is his lover, the wild-woman's brother, a dissolute aristocrat whose privilege has been reduced to a title, a dragon priestess, and last but not least, a wiley merchant.
It's an incredible challenge to manage an ensemble of characters like this and DeFino does a good job through most of the novel. I have to admit, I found myself confused at first about who I was supposed to invest in primarily. I thought Vittorio was the main character, then gradually realized this is a book about a compelling ensemble of characters.
Like all good quest narratives, the hotblooded group go where few have gone before them and experience marvellous places and intriguing people. My favorite is perhaps the dead city of Vodi, though the final location of the book, the one beyond the Gate, is so marvellous that I don't want to ruin it for you by telling you too much about it. Of the people they meet the most memorable for me was Bagwham, the witch who is so old she seems to be turning into a tree.
Best of all, and unusual for an epic fantasy of this type, there is plenty of sex. No self-imposed deprivation here, motivation by dedication to the Quest: everyone follows their hearts, or are misled by their nether parts, in and out of scrapes, in and out of magical situations, and in and out of love. You can read DeFino talking about how she writes her sex scenes in her interview with Diana Munoz-Stewart here.