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Book Review: Harmony by C. F. Bentley

# Genre: Space Opera, Science Fiction
# ISBN: 0756404851
# ISBN-13: 9780756404857
# Format: Hardcover, 400pp
# Publisher: Daw Books
# Pub. Date: August 2008
# Author LiveJournal
# Author Website

According to author C. F. Bentley Harmony is her “spiritual quest with a literary twist in a space opera landscape.” The spiritual aspect of this novel is apparent almost from page one. Harmony is the central planet of a caste society where all people are assigned their positions in society by the caste marks that appear on their cheeks at birth. Workers, Nobles, Priests, and Warriors all bear different marks and no intermarriage is allowed between the castes. Much like Hindu society today, your status in life is predetermined. Sissy is an exception, born with all of the caste marks upon her cheek; she has grown up hiding her marks from everyone, fearing that like others born with more than one mark she will be consigned to an insane asylum. But when an earthquake threatens to tear apart the entire planet of Harmony, Sissy communes with the planet and stops the total destruction. She is soon discovered, and is immediately removed from her Worker caste family into the role of high priestess, the most powerful role in the seven planet Harmonic Empire. Young woman that she is, Sissy must overcome manipulative priests, a society in slow decay, and the desire of other external empires to conquer harmony for its one great commodity, badger metal.

Harmony is essentially the story of a lost human empire, somewhat medieval or early Roman in its societal structure. Priests are the most powerful people in the world, and they do their very best to keep the rest of the empire in a state of ignorance. Sissy does her very best to overthrow all of that. With the help of a spy from another space faring human empire and a priest disgusted with the lack of morality and power hungry people in the priesthood, Sissy manages to throw the Harmonic Empire into disarray.

There are a lot of themes in this story. We have the need of a religion to open its mind and realize that what it has always believed is not necessarily true. We also have the need of intelligentsia to realize the fallibility of itself, and in the character of the High Priest the human desire to replace one’s own wants with the real desires of one’s deity. There is the quest for truth and righteousness in Sissy. Jake, the spy, seeks to serve something bigger than himself, to believe in something. Bentley weaves all these themes and motivations together into a novel that will resonate with every reader who attempts it. Though not overly difficult to read, this story is about some of the most basic needs of humanity.

Some readers will likely dislike the fact that there is no real villain other than an amorphous “society”. Even the high priest operates out of what he believes is best for all the people of Harmony, even if his conclusions and methods are wrong. Others will disagree with the Gaia-like worship of the planet Harmony that is central to the story. Still others may struggle with Bentley’s writing style, as at times it can be vague on what the reader might deem necessary details. Sissy as a character makes something of a rapid change from scared girl to powerful and semi-confident leader, and that change felt a bit abrupt. Readers who dislike it when characters are suddenly heroic after being meek will be instantly turned off.

Still, the tale has lots of action, especially in the character of Jake as he infiltrates the Warrior caste. There is magic communion with the planet for Sissy, which will deter hard SF fans, but those willing to suspend disbelief in miracles will enjoy it. It is almost as if the story is a fantasy set in space. Other readers will be reminded of Babylon 5 and that TV shows focus on relationships and space politics, something Bentley actually intended for her tale.

I recommend this tale with a caution. The story is more fantasy than space tale, and could just as easily have been set in an epic fantasy world. Readers looking for typical SF will not find it. Harmony delves into the deep questions of life, and really is a fictional spiritual quest. You may not agree with where the quest is going or even the conclusions it draws, but you will feel the tug at your soul as the questions you have always known were there are brought to the forefront of your mind.