When Zane shoots Death, he has to take the job, speeding over the world riding Mortis, his pale horse/limo, measuring souls for the exact balance of Good and Evil, sending each to Heaven or Hell instead of Purgatory. The new Thanatos is superbly competent, ends pain when he ends lives. But Satan is forging a trap for Luna, the woman Death loves.
Though he spent the first four years of his life in England, Piers never returned to live in his country of birth after moving to Spain and immigrated to America at age six. After graduating with a B.A. from Goddard College, he married one of his fellow students and and spent fifteen years in an assortment of professions before he began writing fiction full-time.
Piers is a self-proclaimed environmentalist and lives on a tree farm in Florida with his wife. They have two grown daughters.
Ok, I think it's time to delve into my long-evolving and conflicted feelings about this series and about Piers Anthony. Especially since I changed my rating for this book from a 5 to a 1.
When I was young, I loved this series. It was on my favourites list throughout high-school. I was also pretty obsessed with the Xanth series, and would get new books from that series for many christmases and birthdays. These series, and Piers in general, go into my adult category of things-I-can't-believe-I-didn't-realize-were-sexist.
As an adult, I started to revisit some of my favourite series from childhood just to see if they'd hold up. Animorphs, which blew my mind and changed my entire life from grade 4 onward, does not hold up, writing-wise, but the stories are still good and still pretty mind-blowing as the introduction for a 10-year-old to serious (for a 10-year-old) sci-fi. The Giver does hold up magnificently. Piers Anthony just ends up being a sexist old man writing juvenile screeds couched in sci-fi and fantasy. And unfortunately, I still like his stories and ideas. There's a lot in there that's good. Alas, there's so much that's bad that it's really not worth it.
For example, in the very first scene of this book, we meet a gorgeous rich woman who will fall in love with any person who saves her life. This is not even the point of the scene: the point is that the crafty magic stone peddler stole the poor dupe's true love...as women are property and have no minds of their own. What does true love even mean if you can just swoop in and steal it from someone? Is this woman's mind so empty of her own thoughts and feelings that she counts adrenaline as love? That's about where I stopped reading and started skimming. The series as a whole (and Piers' writing as a whole) is filled with gorgeous women who all look exactly the same - big eyes, small noses, long hair, ample bosom but not too ample, just the perfect amount of ample, small waists, and above all, as young as possible without being creepy (though he sometimes just says "fuck it" and goes with creepy). There are, of course, middle-aged women, women with large noses and small eyes, and sometimes they even have brains but it's always despite their looks. Because there is no woman character ever introduced in ANY Piers Anthony book EVER WRITTEN (I haven't checked but I would bet a lot on it) whose attractiveness is not commented on in some way. Hey, a women who has been living for 20 years on her wits in exile, I wonder what she'll say first when she meets someone from her home? "Tell me the truth, do I remain sexually appealing?" Hey, aren't you one of the aspects of FATE, one of the most powerful beings in all of space and time? What wonderful and interesting things are you thinking about right now? "I'm middle aged and therefore ugly." Ah yes. Piers, you have captured a woman's mind perfectly. I AM always thinking about how my nose could be more pert, and am also constantly looking for validation from men that they find me sexually attractive. Literally every second of every day. On the other side, it is exceedingly rare for a male character to think about his own attractiveness. Instead, he is also always thinking about the attractiveness of his female companion.
I would really love for someone to re-write the Incarnations of Immortality so that I could enjoy the stories again while cutting out all the bullshit sexism and frankly poor character development. I think that Piers actually believes he is writing strong female characters, which is pretty scary. The prospect of actually re-reading all of these books is scary too, so I'm just going to spare myself and remember the stories fondly.
4.0 stars. Piers Anthony is a MIND-NUMBING ENIGMA to me. He is capable of writing extremely thought-provoking, imaginative stories that are both original and speak to fundamental aspects of the human condition. The mystery is that he does so infrequently, despite being one of the most prolific authors in the speculative fiction. Wait....on second thought, maybe that is the answer. Quantity of production slamming right into the proverbial nuts of quality.
Well this first novel in the Incarnations of Immortality series is certainly one that resides in the relatively exclusive group of high quality Piers Anthony books. Along with Macroscope (which I need to re-read soon), it is my favorite of his novels and I found myself impressed by both the general concept of the story as well as his execution of it.
The Incarnations series is founded on the premise that humans assume the roles of 5 of the 7 major supernatural offices called "Incarnations" (i.e., Death, War, Fate, Time and Nature). The other 2 Incarnations, Good and Evil, are permanently held by the Big G and the man downstairs who are engaged in a perpetual fight for the souls of all mankind. All of this takes place in a world similar (though advanced) to ours, except that both science and magic exist side by side (e.g., flying cars and flying carpets, organ transplants and healing elixirs).
As you can guess based on the title, this first book in the series focuses on the Incarnation of Death...DUH!! Zane is a lonely, suicidal man who, while contemplating taking his own life, accidentally kills Death (I know, ironical). Zane is then tasked with assuming the role of Death. I know this may sound cheesy, but it is actually handled pretty well in the story and has some very humorous moments.
Death's role is to send the souls of the deceased to either heaven or hell (or purgatory) depending on the balance between the good and evil present in the soul at the time of death. (QUICK NOTE: yep...turns out a person's religion has NOTHING to do with it and heaven or hell is solely (no pun intended) a matter of doing more good than harm during your life.). Kinda comforting isn't it.
Anyway, good deeds are extremely light. In fact, they are lighter than air and actually float. On the otehr hand, evil deeds have substantial weight and weigh a soul down. So a good person's soul will float up towards heaven whereas a bad person’s will....you get the idea. Finally, when a soul is in extremely fine balance between good and evil, Death is the final arbiter of the soul’s final destination.
That's about all you need for set up. The rest of this very interesting novel involves Zane learning about how the universe is run and coming into conflict with Satan over the soul of a particular person. It seems their is an ancient prophecy that says that this individual will foil Satan’s plans for the world, so naturally ole horn head wants the person dead. In addition to being very entertaining, there are some very neat discussions about the nature of good and evil.
This is Piers Anthony at his best. Taking a “big picture” concept and making an entertaining yet thoughtful examination of it in the context of a terrific story. I have read the next two books in this series and while not as good as this one, they are generally entertaining with “flashes of brilliance.”
“Do you seek to bribe Death?” Zane asked, half angry and two-thirds curious.”
I'd read Anthony's Apprentice Adept Series (beginning with Split Infinity) when I was in high school. I liked how technology was mixed with magic. In On a Pale Horse, the first book in the Incarnations of Immortality Series, there's a similar kind of mixing going on. The story focuses on a normal man, Zane, becoming the next incarnation of Death. Instead of simply relying on the traditional accoutrements of the office, Death/Zane has a stallion at his disposal that can also morph into a car, plane or boat. It took a while to get to the plot (a little turf war with Satan), and I'd hoped for a somewhat deeper dive, but this was a quick and fun read. 3.25 stars
This was the first book I ever read of Piers Anthony and I was hooked.
Original, imaginative and told by a true story-teller, this was a gem. And best of all, this blended good science fiction with pure fantasy elements to make a very enjoyable read.
A man accidentally kills Death, an incarnation of Immortality and - shades of Tim Allen in The Santa Clause - he must don the black mantle and ride the white horse. It turns out to be a white car and a pretty cool gig when all is settled. That is until the Hellhounds show up.
Unfortunately, I don't think the rest of the series was anywhere nearly as good, On a Pale Horse has, nonetheless remained timeless as I have often thought about it since.
When the grim reaper shows up a few seconds early, Zane shoots him instead of using the gun on himself as he’d planned. Now, instead of being dead, Zane is Death. He has to take over the office, riding around the world in his convertible pale horse collecting and measuring the souls of those who’ve committed equal amounts of good and evil during their lives — those who are “in balance.” In his new guise (complete with all of the accoutrements: scythe, hooded cloak, skeleton face, etc), Zane sets out to change Death’s image while dealing with his own personal demons.
This is a fun premise and I expected Piers Anthony to do a lot with it, but unfortunately I found On a Pale Horse to be mostly illogical, trite and, worst sin of all, just plain boring. Part of the problem is that it doesn’t know if it wants to be a comedy, a love story, or a heavy philosophical treatise. It tries to do all three (it should have been possible), but it fails at all three. The comedy, as usual for Piers Anthony, consists of puns, allusions, and light black humor. For example, when Zane asks Mortis (the pale horse) something to which the answer is negative, Mortis says “neigh” (that was the only one I actually laughed at). I enjoy puns in real-life dialogue (they indicate a quick wit), but they don’t often work for me in print and this is one of the reasons I don’t read Piers Anthony (I gave up on the first Xanth book after 4 chapters, but I tried On a Pale Horse because it sounded mature and interesting).
There were some things I did find funny — Death lives in a house that looks like a funeral home and answers fan mail, Satan uses his publicity budget to sponsor Hellathons, group plans, and billboard advertising, a soul’s balance of good and evil is computed like an income tax, and you should hear Satan argue with a female Irish fishmonger — but mostly I found the humor and cheesy dialogue to be juvenile.
The love story is juvenile, too. Zane meets and immediately falls in love with Luna, whose main attractions are that she is beautiful, well-dressed, serious, and likes the same kind of art as Zane. After only a couple of conversations which they apparently think are deep, they are in love, but the reader certainly doesn’t feel it.
The humor and the romance are silly, but the thing that really killed On a Pale Horse for me was that it tries to be thoughtful and enlightening as Zane attends a variety of deathbed scenarios that illustrate the unfairness, loneliness, guilt, relief, grief, and ugliness of death. In these scenes (there’s a long string of them), there is a lot of repetitive introspection and pondering and some “lessons” about the selfishness of suicide, the effects of incest or rape, the tragedy of an untimely death, the positive and negative aspects of war. Sounds like it could be profound, and I know it’s supposed to be profound because in the rather pompous and lengthy (one hour on audio) author’s note at the end, Mr. Anthony says “it is a satiric look at contemporary society with some savagely pointed criticism. It’s also a serious exploration of man’s relation to death… an ambitious hard-hitting social commentary.” Except it’s not. It’s rather superficially processed and it’s all stuff that most thinking adults have pondered many times before. There’s nothing new here, even for 1984 when it was published.
Just as one example, there’s a long scene in which Zane (as Death) enters a medical facility where machines are keeping dying people alive against their wishes. When he shuts down the power and they all are relieved that they can now die, he thinks he has greatly sinned and that now he’ll have to make up for it by doing more good deeds. Of course, we the readers recognize that his mercy is the good deed and that it’s not a sin to let people die naturally, but why hasn’t this occurred to him before, especially since he’s had personal experience with the issue and he’s been thinking about it for months? Luna tells him “I think sometimes you just have to sin in order to do the right thing” which is a profound revelation for Zane, but it makes me wonder why an adult who hasn’t advanced very far through Kohlberg’s stages of moral development was chosen to be Death. This sophomoric philosophizing might work better in a YA novel, but On a Pale Horse, with its succubi and other sexual references, is marketed to adults.
I was beyond bored with On a Pale Horse and the only reason I managed to finish it was so that I could thoroughly review it. Unfortunately, I was listening on audio and couldn’t skim. The reader, George Guidall, wonderful as he is, actually seems to slow down during the introspective scenes (I guess so that I can have time to process the heavy material?).
Another reason that the attempted weightiness of the story didn’t work for me is that On a Pale Horse is completely based on Christian theology. It’s okay that Anthony gets some of it really wrong (purgatory is not Biblical, and neither is the idea that criminals and children of rape or incest are unacceptable to Heaven), but what’s hard to overlook is that no mention is made of redemption, which is the crux of Christian belief (and a popular theme in fantasy literature). The whole point of Christianity is that Jesus paid the price for sin, so souls are not measured by the balance of good and evil deeds, but by whether or not they belong to Jesus.
Of course, a savior would completely throw off Piers Anthony’s entire premise, which is that man must secure a place in heaven by doing more good than evil. In order for this to work, Christ must be excluded, but in that case it seems that it would be better to not use CHRISTianity as the basis for the story because it forces the premise to fail. Mr. Anthony knows that, he knows we know it, and he wants us to just wink it away so that his story works with all of the clever Christian puns and allusions. For the most part I was able to do that, and I could have been perfectly happy doing that if On a Pale Horse didn’t ask me to think. But when it asks me to seriously consider eternal issues and the nature of sin and death, good and evil, and Heaven and Hell in the context of a Christian system, then I have trouble leaving redemption out of the picture — my thinking is restricted and I don’t get very far if I have to omit key elements of the doctrine. For this reason, On a Pale Horse would have worked better as strictly a comedy
This is the first in the Incarnations of Immortality series, and probably the best of the batch. I believe I read somewhere that Anthony originally intended only to write the five (Death, Time, Fate, War, and Earth), and I think he probably should have stopped there, because while With a Tangled Skein is probably the best book of the series in terms of pulling the other books together, they did (as Sci-Fi series so often do) start to drag quite a bit towards the later books, and ended up just plain silly by the end of the seventh book in the series, And Eternity.
All that said, On a Pale Horse being the reader's first look at this world, it is an original concept for a novel. As a 16 year old, at least, it was a very engrossing read, as was the rest of the series as a whole.
I can see where I would have been really into this series if I’d read it as a teenager. I was just busy reading at that point in my life and not very much into evaluating what I was taking in. It is a very male-oriented story, with women being mostly objects that they compete for and fight over. The male characters evaluate women by their age and attractiveness, although Zane/Death comes to grudgingly admire Luna’s strength, intelligence, and morality. If I had children, I wouldn’t encourage them to read this series, but if they did, we would need to talk about the role of women in it and why it shouldn’t be used as a model for relationships. The female characters often say some very chauvinistic things, as if Anthony believed it was acceptable to be prejudiced as long as the female characters voice those thoughts (e.g. that as women get old, they just bag & sag and lose all their attractiveness, implying that without youthful attractiveness they really aren’t worth anything anymore).
The writing is acceptable; the morality is extremely black-and-white. Having characters like God and Satan included in the list of characters plunges the reader very much into a Christian universe and there is no escaping that uni-religion slant. Since I attended Sunday School as a child, I was conversant with the details of that worldview, but I wonder how many modern young people would be? It might be interesting for non-Christian readers, although I would hate for them to get their Christian theology from Anthony, or it might be off-putting.
On the plus side, I really enjoyed the horse/car Mortis and the idea that a new person in the Incarnation of Death could shake up the job quite a bit.
I’ve read these books out of order (it doesn’t affect their understanding all that much since they’re fairly simplistic), so I’ve only got a couple to go. I’ve abandoned Anthony’s Xanth series because it bores and annoys me, but I haven’t made any hard-and-fast decisions about this one. Not my favourite author, although I can understand what others may see in his work.
Book number 181 in my science fiction & fantasy reading project.
I first read this book back when I was 13 and loved it. Immediately tore through the rest of the books in the series and would regularly bring up the series in conversations about books worth reading. A few months back I found a paperback copy of On A Pale Horse at a book sale for 50 cents and picked it up thinking it'd be fun to revisit the series.
This is an extraordinarily sexist book. Alarmingly so. Women are regularly--approximately every time they are talked about--described by their physical characteristics. And Anthony clearly has a type, which basically boils down to just past the age of consent (and sometimes just before it too). Older women are referred to as hags, or otherwise sexually disgusting. They are prized for their sexuality, and then looked upon as broken if they've "used" it. It's deeply alarming.
The rest of the story is shallow despite being about the balance of Good and Evil. Eternity and the supernatural are broken out into Richard Scarry like job descriptions. Death, in this case, is tasked with helping people on to the afterlife. The result is a handful of "wouldn't it be hard to take someone's soul in this circumstance‽" vignettes, each more shallow and tidy than they should be.
It's rough re-reading a book you loved and realizing how problematic it's always been. What lessons or perspectives did I inadvertently take from it? Probably more than I'd like to admit. At one point I remarked to my wife how terrible the book was and how I remembered it being much better than it was. She astutely said, "Maybe you changed?" I think that's true
This was the book that got me into reading fiction many years ago, and inspired me to want to write. The reading happened straight away and I've not stopped since; the writing took a little longer to get started, and I see no sign of stopping that now either.
So, reading for the second time many years later, much of the narrative feels a little dated in regard to social references and attitudes, but I enjoyed the story just as much as I did as a young man. Now I feel compelled to reread the rest of the series.
Highly recommended, especially if you already like fantasy.
Maybe a better title for this book would be, "Euthanasia Rocks!"
I honestly thought I would like this book a whole lot more. It doesn't help that the impetus for my reading this book was a good friend's rusty memory of reading this in high school. I feel that would have been a great time to read it, now ... less so.
My main problem was the annoying protagonist. I don't know if this was something that was a rule for fantasy writing in the 80s, but what is with the protagonist who's characterized as being intelligent, but who's as dense as a rock throughout the entirety of the book.
In just about every situation, the author draws out the explanation, whether it's magic or a plot complication, because the protagonist is the last person to understand.
Obviously, this is for the benefit of the reader, but I can tell you I'd much prefer the protagonist who knows, but doesn't let the reader know. At least it's according to character.
I can't be too harsh, because I enjoyed the ideas presented and thought it was done in a capable manner. There were plenty of inconsistencies and points where disbelief just could no longer be suspended, but it was also kind of cool to be in a world with magic alongside technology.
And I know you're not supposed to do this in a review, and that is tell the author how to do something, but I feel like there was a huge oversight in making a hilarious character out of the "pale horse," Mortis. He was dull, though horse-like ... I guess. Come on, where's the wise-cracking buddy?
I don't think I'll be reading further in this series. I enjoyed parts, but I was mostly annoyed and rumor has it this is the best installment. No thanks.
Okay, I'm done. I made it 2 hours and 47 minutes into the audiobook, and this just isn't good. It starts with one of the most most blatant cases of the trope 'women as rewards' I've seen in popular fiction and just keeps piling them on. It's gross. I stopped just after the female football team with the invisible protective gear and mammary glands likened to those of goats. How that's sexy, I'm not sure, but Piers Anthony didn't spare the adjectives. He took several passes after the 'goat udder' comment to clarify that the lady footballers had large bosoms. I remain unclear as to whether these remarkable organs were on their bellies or their chests, but that's okay. I understood his key point. This is some sexist bullpoop. Moving on.
On a Pale Horse is the best book Piers Anthony's ever written.
Sadly, that's not saying much. Anthony has some very creative ideas, but his prose is mechanical at best and plainly clunky at worst.
Even so, some of the ideas are worth the slog. The Incarnations of Immortality series, though it fades at the end as all of Anthony's series do, is a clever and occasionally inspired look at religion, spirituality, and morality. In different hands it might have been pure art (see also, Good Omens by Pratchett and Gaiman). As it stands, however, it's merely a moderately entertaining read.
The first books of Anthony's series, before he overextends himself, tend to be the best (see also, A Spell for Chameleon, and On a Pale Horse is no exception. Zane's confusion and flawed humanity in the both sought-after and feared face of death (and Death) makes this book rise a bit above the common run of Anthony's work.
Death does ride a Pale Horse but that Horse can be so much more if that is what the job calls for, or at least that is what Anthony will have us believe.
A friend of mine in high school pushed this series on me and I reluctantly started to read it. Have I mentioned that science fiction really isn't my favorite yet? Because yeah, it takes something special for me to really delve into science fiction. Not that this is science fiction per say but more like an alternate Earth with some futuristic elements because science and magic work together there.
Anyway, I started to read this book and was drawn in quickly. I think the basis is what did it for me. How could I not love the idea that Death was an office that regular people wound up performing by chance? Sure it is a kinda futuristic world but the character portrayal is what takes center stage, not the world they are in.
All in all this is a wonderful start to a great series!
I think this is a case of it's not you it's me. This is a very popular book but everyone that I personally know that has read and loved it say they read it way back in the 80's or 90's. I wonder if they would still feel the same way if they read it for the first time today. I've just read too many outstanding fantasy novels this year so this book had big shoes to fill. Unfortunately it fell short. I'm not sure why but I went into this book expecting it to be funny. I was actually looking forward to a humorous book. It did pick up a bit in the second half once Zane went on strike and started fighting off everything Satan was throwing his way. But by then I was only semi-invested in the story.
Well, I enjoyed the author's note. That was entertaining. I read he does that at the end of all of his books.
As for the book, itself, I'm not too sure. What I liked: The idea of the story - Death as a real man, unwittingly thrust into the role, and having to figure it out as he went. I liked Mortis the horse/limousine. I liked Satan advertising on billboards that Hell is actually a Fun place to be! I was a big fan of Dead Like Me and was so bummed when they canceled that series. There were actually quite a few clever ideas in the story line of On a Pale Horse.
What I didn't like: The sexism, the writing of the female characters. Very one-sided and that side was male. I rolled my eyes quite a bit but I found myself wondering if he was deliberately doing this. The book is early eighties and yes, we've come a long ways (in some respects) from then. I have this issue whenever I read older sci-fi books as that genre was dominated by male authors for so long. So maybe a lot of this was Piers Anthony being tongue-in-cheek, but it was enough to make me decide not to pursue the series. It felt a little unsettling. Women are more than their bodies, after all.
So, basically, a great story idea that needed help with the dialog, especially with the female characters. We need an updated version of this with 2017 sensibilities!
Piers Anthony is an author who is more conceptually innovative than literary. His writing is like puff pastry and not very substantive, but his characters are likable and the plots engaging. He has moments of preachiness mixed in, and sometimes a puerile sense of humor, but if you don't mind these things (or indeed, revel in them) you should give him a try. None of Anthony's books takes long to read, and you'll be able to tell by the first 100 pages of a series whether you're into his concept.
Though my least favorite of his series, this group is fun enough. (Often hapless) humans take the "jobs" of Greek gods...and later other deities--Death, War, Time, etc--and deal with beaurocracy and political infighting. The first book benefits from the novelty of Anthony's concept, and For Love of Evil is the most interesting, character-wise. Other than that, the books are just mindless entertainment.
You know what, 4 star concept and story... minus 2 stars for the women characters. Every single one was stripped naked or offered to the main character for sex, usually both. Seriously, bro.
The deaths Zane came across to weigh their good v. evil were so interesting and morally questionable at times, I really did enjoy the story. However, I can't overlook the poor female characterizations. On the fence on weather to continue on with this series although my gut says don't.
In my opinion this is the best of the incarnations series. Interesting where the guy discovers he's "become" the new incarnation of Death (and of course how he became "Death"). I think this was a pretty good book and it's one of only a few Anthony books I really like. I read a few others of the Incarnation Series, and incidental other Anthony books. Not in general a fan of his.
-Innovador y poco común en su tiempo, curioso en la actualidad.-
Género. Narrativa Fantástica.
Lo que nos cuenta. En una realidad en la que tecnología y magia se han desarrollado juntas haciendo del siglo XX su Edad de Oro y en la que Cielo e Infierno son dos conceptos que marcan el comportamiento de las personas y su destino, Zane es un hombre con poca suerte que mata a la Muerte cuando trata de llevar a cabo su propio suicidio y es obligado por Destino a tomar su puesto. Durante los comienzos de su nuevo trabajo como Thanatos irá descubriendo sus herramientas y capacidades, además de averiguar que hay encarnaciones eternas que operan en medio de Dios y Satán sin deber obediencia a ninguno de los dos. Cuando va a recoger el alma de un mago, recibe una misteriosa propuesta del moribundo. Primer libro de la serie Encarnaciones de Inmortalidad.
¿Quiere saber más de este libro, sin spoilers? Visite:
It’s my first time reading Anthony, and overall I enjoyed this story. Yes, it’s dated, & yep definitely some unnecessary female sexualization, but overall I liked the story and it was a fun read juxtaposed with my current political read. I liked the play of good verses evil and all the grey areas, the exploration of original sin, and what if bad things are done for good reasons. It was a bit too simple in some places, but overall interesting read.
I’ve long been a fan of anthropomorphized versions of Death. This is probably not surprising, since we have been doing this for thousands of years to varying degrees of sophistication. And some do it better than others. I’m a big fan of Julian Richings’ portrayal of Death on Supernatural. He captures the eerie, inhuman quality of Death as a force of nature older than God so well, managing to appear suave and completely cold at the same time. (Plus, he kind of looks the part.)
In On a Pale Horse, Death is slightly less ineffable. He’s just another everyday working joe, an ordinary human in a somewhat extraordinary office. Zane, having been bilked out of his savings by an unscrupulous merchant in enchanted stones, commits suicide out of despair for his position in life. His soul is balanced—his good deeds and bad deeds cancelling each other out—requiring the person of Death to retrieve his soul and weigh it manually. Except Zane accidentally kills Death, and in so doing, becomes Death. As the story develops, we learn that Zane’s promotion was not entirely accidentally, and that in fact his a player and a pawn in a much larger game.
This is where the whimsy of the writer takes over and transforms an idea into a breathing work of fiction. Some writers could take the description above and create a gritty, noir thriller. Piers Anthony writes with a sort of dry, tongue-in-cheek consideration toward how a society steeped in both science and magic might work. Satan buys advertising on billboards and the radio; people use enchantments and stones regularly even as they drive cars, fly carpets, and ride airplanes. Purgatory is an intense bureaucracy with sassy computers and bored receptionists. It is very surreal and, considering that Anthony, although born in England, moved to the United States as a child, oddly British in texture and tone.
Although I can easily praise the world Anthony depicts, enjoyment of On a Pale Horse probably lives and dies with how much one enjoys the protagonist, Zane. On one hand, he has much to recommend him: despite being so manipulated by the other Incarnations, he often takes risks and is dedicated to fulfilling the office of Death in his own way. He is his own person, and that is admirable. He’s also not a Marty Stu; he is fallible, flawed, and vulnerable—there are times when he comes very close to admitting defeat. On the other hand, especially in the beginning of the book, Zane is a whiny and indecisive moron. So, you know, your mileage may vary.
Indeed, I didn’t quite expect the theme of fate versus self-determination: to what extent are our lives directed by external forces? Yet in retrospect it seems very appropriate to the world Anthony has created, where various forces of nature are incarnated. These forces, while having plenty of leeway in how they perform their duties—Zane spares many people by persuading them not to take their lives and directing them to get back on track—are bound by certain rules. Zane only personally collects those souls that are in balance; he can only affect so many people. And his sphere of influence is limited to death, just as Chronos’ is to time and Mars’ is to war—they can help each other but shouldn’t interfere with each other. It’s always interesting to see how an author constrains a character after giving them superhuman powers. Often, with pantheons, I get frustrated by the very arbitrary division of powers; I think Anthony makes the right call in limiting the number of incarnations and their roles to only a small amount. (I want to make a small shout-out to Fred Saberhagen’s Book of the Gods series, in which the Greek gods are “faces” worn by human avatars. I don’t remember a lot about it, because I read it when I was much, much younger, but the concept was very interesting to my young, mythology-obsessed self.)
Zane is an interesting case when it comes to free will, because he is essentially set up. A magician pays off Fate to get Zane into the position of Death, because he wants Zane to protect his daughter, who has personally attracted the attention of Satan. In return, the magician has done his best to sow the seeds of a relationship between his daughter and Zane (Zane has the first “option” is how he puts it). Zane has no idea what he’s doing, of course. To his credit he doesn’t exactly jump at the opportunity to make the magician’s daughter, Luna, fall in love with him or try to use the Lovestone on her to inflame her passions. But he still feels bound to protect her, such as he can. By the end of the story, we learn the true extent to which Zane has been manipulated; as much as he annoys me at times, I can’t help but feeling sorry for him too.
Related to the fate/self-determination issue, particularly when it comes to death, is the nature of morality. What does it mean to be moral? Most organized religions impose an absolutist, external system of morality on their adherents (and, alas, on the rest of the world). Some people take an opposite stance and claim that morality is entirely relative (this also has its dangers). The weighing of one’s good and evil actions, and the balance of those actions in one’s soul, is a huge deal in On a Pale Horse. Zane’s got these little stones that act as soul-analysis tools: wave them over someone, and they tell you the person’s balance of good and evil actions. On the surface that seems like a neat plot device, a way to give the person of Death something to do. However, it also raises the question of exactly how these stones are analyzing one’s soul and one’s actions—exactly who decides which actions are good and which ones are evil? Because it seems that, in the book, a person’s belief influences the fate of one’s immortal soul: atheists, at least, stop existing after death.
These are not so much flaws in the book and its world-building as they are questions raised by how Anthony portrays society in On a Pale Horse. I can’t really let the book off, of course, because as much as I liked both the concept and the story, On a Pale Horse falls short in several respects.
Anthony portrays women—and the attitudes of men toward women—in ways that are very problematic. It’s probably because I’ve been thinking about this so much lately in other areas (as well as on Goodreads), but this is one of the first things I noticed while reading. It’s right there in the opening chapter, where Zane purchases a wealthstone instead of a lovestone from a magic stone merchant. Zane pays for the former by using the latter to find his intended love, then letting the merchant make the connection instead, thus essentially treating the woman as an object lucky to be wooed. Later on, we learn that even more powerful lovestones can actually inspire their users and targets to lust after each other. It is just another spin on the “love potion” motif, but it’s also very unsettling. I know we are raised, in this society, to find the idea of a “one true love” an attractive and romantic ideal. The proposition itself is rather untestable, but the divorce rates in the United States and Canada indicate that either it is false or we, as humans, are spectacularly bad at finding our one true loves. It all comes back to the question of agency and fate/self-determination: I don’t want an external agency telling me I am destined to love this person.
Luna is a very capable character who somewhat mitigates my above gripes. She faces off against a dragon, and she stands up both to Zane (when he’s being an idiot) and to Satan and Satan’s minions. So that’s cool and tough; I actually like Luna a lot more than I like Zane. That being said, Luna is still as much of a pawn as Zane is, with the added bonus of being expected to fall in love with him as a “reward” for his “protection”. I’m not sure I can adequately convey the many levels of trust issues and issues of power abuse that this raises. All I can really do is say that On a Pale Horse does a very good job of demonstrating why traditional romance (in the medieval sense) and fantasy tropes are often creepy or downright offensive by today’s standards. (I can’t wait to see what future generations make of our writing.) And while this is speculation on my part, I think that those tropes are one of the sources for this book’s flawed use of its female cast. Anthony is very much drawing from traditional, Western ideas about the afterlife, Death personified, etc., and with those ideas come problematic portrayals of women, etc. There is, essentially, a missed opportunity to deconstruct those ideas that I could easily see happening in this decade by another, more subversive author.
Finally, On a Pale Horse has a very dense narrative style that just did not work well with my reading habits and inclinations. Anthony describes a great deal of the scene, as well as his characters’ internal motivations, and the result is a 230 page book that feels much longer. There is a lot in here, in terms of content and reflection, and I think that could appeal to many readers. For me, however, it took a lot of focus. Anthony’s styles of exposition and narration just don’t achieve the unity I expect, though I admit I have rather spoiled myself by reading the likes of Umberto Eco. It’s a minor complaint in many ways, but I suspect many people would agree with me about the significance it plays in one’s enjoyment of a book: if I abandon a book, it’s usually because of the writing style, not the contents.
Fortunately that did not happen here. You won’t see me demanding any awards for On a Pale Horse—it was OK bordering on good, with an extra helping of interesting worldbuilding on the side. I am ambivalent about continuing the series—something tells me it will be a lot more of the same. I’m thinking the Xanth series looks more interesting.
How this never got added to Goodreads confounds me. I’ve read this book a number of times. It is the beginning of Piers Anthony’s series “Incarnations of Immortality”. Zane isn’t much of a person but when he becomes Death himself, will he stay a nonentity or grow to do his new profession with excellence? As Anthony made clear in his author’s note, while entertaining, he was trying to discuss serious questions. He ultimately rejected the minimal atheist position of “it must be all about me”, having the atheist refusing to partake of current thought. However, as he pointed out, it is perfectly possible to be an atheist and care deeply about the world. He shows the fallacy and ultimately the cruelty of refusing to let people die when they should. This has come up several times when parents will not let children die but insist on keeping them on life support. Anyone who thinks that isn’t cruel, hasn’t spent a lot of time in a hospital! Hospital staff have pointed out with a current case they have to keep the child unconscious to keep the child from pulling out the tubings. Why? Because it hurts! How many of us haven’t felt relief at a person suffering from cancer or another painful condition finally dying? That doesn’t exclude sorrow but more of us have felt relief than are willing to admit it. The philosophy in the book enhances the story and vice versa. Highly recommended to anyone who has struggled with the concept of death and dying.
The gospel according to Piers Anthony is mismanaged and a little boring. We're compelled to wade through half a novel of false doctrine before hitting actual storyline. Every chapter plants a seed of what's to come, but it is slow and tedious until the last few chapters. Had I read only the second half of the novel, I think I might have enjoyed it. It is a wildly creative story, embedding future, fantasy, and religion.
Piers Anthony is thoroughly self-absorbed. This novel embodies his great love for his own literary skill. He loves arranging grandiose words in scintillating cadence to the detriment of meaning, and I dislike his lack of preciseness. Another condescending measure devised to instill in the reader an awe of his literary greatness is an over abundance of classic poetry quoted throughout the novel.
My favorite part is in the author's notes, where Piers Anthony confesses to being a sell-out; he only writes what's been bought and paid for. He also shares a bit much of himself in the author's notes - that part about the kidney stones was riveting (what a page turner :D).
One summer while in Jr High, my brother handed me a book. The cover was yellow and depicted Death driving a very nice looking sports car. I loved the book, and unlike Anthony's Xanth series, Incarnations is still very readable for me today. I've heard the argument that many feel that Anthony has far too many sexual scenes in the Incarnations books. I guess I never really latched onto those scenes as being particularly offensive. There are worse books than these out there for that. The books themselves follow around each of the Incarnations during a particularly tough time (don't want to spoil). I think the best parts of them is how ordinary people become the Incarnations. Still one of my favorite series of all time.
One of my favorite questions to ask anyone is "What are you reading now?" or "What's your favorite read?" It is the best way to get out of my reading comfort zone. . . the question was answered by my cousin, a great fellow who lives with his partner in Alaska. On a Pale Horse is his favorite book.
It's moved up in my list, and today's the day I finished it. Now, I'm going into spoiler land. . . .so skip the next bit if you are one of those who refuses to watch movie trailers. . . .
What I did enjoy was the moral wrestling, ethical considerations and super-odd justifications that popped up everywhere as the characters troubleshoot relationships, circumstances and weirdness that occurs on this side (life on this planet, as we know it) and that side (after death existence however that presents) of the Veil (that diaphanous Epiphany through which we pass, when we Pass. . . .)
I'm tempted but torn about continuing through the all the Incarnations. Written in High Camp, Man-Cornball style, but still. . .whiffs of retro 50's? And along with that are all levels of non-pc-speak, limiting all but white males (best on that scale would be not-dead Y-chromosome creatures or deities). The amusement is present, and the seriousness with which the characters and narrator take themselves is a thing all by itself. Just about everybody is described by spotlighted body parts (thighs, breasts, rashy nether-regions for women, muscles, hairy parts, square jaws for men - NOTE: both genders have all of those from time to time!).
Oh well. I put this in the category of a Extra Rompy read.
The story of a 'regular guy,' Zane, who after a run of bad luck, decides to commit suicide - but instead, as Fate would have it, is picked to assume the office of Death. The job comes with any number a perks - a shapechanging Deathhorse, a manor in purgatory, and who knows what powers - Zane needs to figure that out as he goes along, collecting the sould of those whose lives are in balance, neither good nor evil, to be sorted out and sent to hell, heaven, or purgatory. To complicate things, there's a pretty girl, Luna, whose magician dad has tried to engineer things so that Zane would get together with her - and of, course, an ongoing struggle between god and Satan - and Satan seems to be cheating. This is an entertaining-enough light fantasy read, but it also has pretentions to "pointed social satire" as Anthony says - which aren't really that pointed. The characterization is slight, and it also seemed slightly sexist. The cosmology is also very simplistic.
Four years later than this book, Terry Pratchett published his humorous fantasy book about Death (Mort), which shares a LOT of similarities with this book - and although it might have come later, it's just much much funnier and better-done. If I hadn't already read Mort, I probably would have liked this much better.
At the end of 'On A Pale Horse' is a rather long 'Author's Note' in which Anthony talks about some of his aims as a writer and his life at the time of reading the book - and it's a really interesting, attention-grabbing essay. Ironically, it might have been my favorite part of the book!
Super nice guy Zane has to take up the mantle of death and begrudgingly do some reaping (well, super nice except that he makes a living by being a sex pervert because this is a Piers Anthony novel. Anthony is known to be a weirdo in real life and it always seems to seep into his work).
This novel seems to exist to give Anthony a forum to wax philosophical about various topics. He never gets any deeper or more profound than a child would, though (people shouldn't have to suffer and good people shouldn't be tortured forever in the afterlife. Yeah, no shit.). Still, Anthony gives us a world that is interesting enough to hold this paper-thin plot together. He could have just set the book in our own real world, but Anthony gives us a world in which magic is a known science that normal people have access to, which in turn leads to various fun shenanigans.
My biggest gripe is that the ending devolves into battles against various monsters and demons, which feels really out of place in what had been up to that point a very low-action story. It's like Anthony didn't know how to end this because the plot is so transparent and so he just added in some boss fights and called it a day.
At 4.5 stars, this is a solid book by Mr. Anthony. I actually enjoyed the Incarnations series more than the few Xanth books I read in the past. I originally read Incarnations book 3 and 5 (5 was the first I ever read, not knowing it was part of a series) so I was a bit 'spoiled' when I decided to buy the entire set. Still, this book was a highly enjoyable read, set in a world where science and magic are mixed together. Zane is a genuinely likable character, and his story is enjoyable.
A compassionate Death is a interesting thing to think about, and I enjoyed Zane's attempts to understand his office and mitigate some of the suffering that Death brought. And as with all of Mr. Anthony's books, there's always quirky bits of humor in here along with interesting nuggets of knowledge and philosophy that make for a entertaining and thought-provoking read. I highly recommend not just this book but the whole series.
This book did not age well. I realize that this book is a product of its time but boy howdy, the sexism in this book is really bad. I tried to read it "Mad Men" style, trying to look past it but because the book hinges on this I found it impossible. I have read a lot of books from this time period, Stranger in a Strange Land is one I still enjoy despite it's sexism, this book just can't escape it. I picked up this book after hearing the TAL story about Piers Anthony. I realized I had not read any Anthony books and this one had the highest reviews. The heart of the book is very nice, I did like the main character and some of the ideas that were tossed around. You should know before going into the book that it's a satire, I generally don't enjoy satires as much as other books so there is that too. In the end, I have to consider this book an unfortunate victim of it's own time. I don't anticipate picking up any more Piers Anthony.