Tuesday, August 9, 2011

An Extraordinary Job Promotion: A Review of Piers Anthony's On A Pale Horse

Title: On a Pale Horse
Author: Piers Anthony
Edition: Paperback
Publisher: Ballantine Books (1983)
Pages: 325
How I Came by This Book: Jo from Fluidity of Time suggested that I read this book way back in May when I had asked for book recommendations in various and sundry categories. I recently picked a used copy up at Barnes and Noble for $2, along with a few other random sci-fi/fantasy books.
Challenges: Read Your Own Books Challenge; GoodReads 2011 Reading Challenge

Synopsis: Shooting Death was a mistake, as Zane soon discovered. For the man who killed the Incarnation of Death was immediately forced to assume the vacant position! Thereafter, he must speed over the world, riding his pale horse, and ending the lives of others.

Zane was forced to accept his unwelcome task, despite the rules that seemed woefully unfair. But then he found himself being drawn into an evil plot of Satan. Already the Prince of Evil was forging a trap in which Zane must act to destroy Luna, the woman he loved.

He could see only one possible way to defeat the Father of Lies. It was unthinkable--but he had no other solution!

Review: I'm a sucker for books with Death as the main character. Whether he's been in the job for years (e.g. Discworld) or just assuming the position (as with this book), I find the anthropomorphic personification of Death to be one of the most fascinating characters in fiction. With On a Pale Horse, Piers Anthony creates a new narrative surrounding a character as old as time...and pulls it off with only a few minor hitches.

The world in this book (and the rest of the Incarnations of Immortality series, which I intend to read at some point) is much different from the world we know. In Zane's world, magic and science both work within society; it's a place where magic gems and flying carpets are just as prevalent as guns and planes. Magic is woven into the narrative and it is also integral to the plot of the story. Anthony uses it in a unique way--there are no limits to whether or not a person can use magic; everyone does it and they learn it in public schools along with other, more mundane subjects.

The main character, Zane, is a man with a problem--he's gambled his money away, has lost the woman he loved, and feels guilty for helping to end his mother's life. One night he decides to end it all, but, as he starts to pull the trigger, Death comes to collect him and Zane shoots him instead. Fate arrives to inform Zane that he's the new Death and that he better get on with collecting souls...because the fate of his own soul depends on how well he performs his job.

In this novel, just as science and magic intertwine, so does religion. God and Satan are very real forces, with Satan leading a PR campaign on Earth in an attempt to garner more souls. It is Death's job to collect and judge the souls that are completely in balance--half good and half evil--to determine whether they should go to Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. Along the way, Zane meets the other Incarnations--Fate, Nature, Time, and War--as well as a high-level magician with a beautiful daughter, Luna, who wants Zane to take personal care of her when he's dead. Which is about ten minutes after Zane meets him.

The book moves quickly through his first few weeks on the job, juggling the responsibilities of Death with his new-found (possible) love interest, Luna, and a plot by the Father of Lies that could have harmful consequences for Zane, Luna, and the rest of the world if he isn't stopped. It's fast-paced with a decent plot and some well-developed and highly-likeable characters.

Zane is an Everyman who is thrust into a seemingly impossible situation whom the reader comes to like and root for as his story progresses. Luna, although somewhat of a wooden character, grows on you after a fashion. The other Incarnations, the little you see of them, are great characters who tie everything together nicely, answering all of the questions that the reader has at the beginning of Zane's ordeal. Satan is an interesting character, although a little predictable, and he doesn't have the uniqueness that books like Death: A Life or Hell give him. All in all, he's rather forgettable, to be honest.

I ended up really liking this book, but there were a few weakness that I feel need to be addressed. The first is the dialogue. Some of it was pretty decent, but a lot of it seemed very out of place in modern society. There were phrases that didn't quite mesh with the world that he was creating and that would have worked much better in a novel set in, say, the Middle Ages. A lot of the dialogue was also needlessly wordy. There were several soliloquies by minor characters (like the school nurse trying to explain to Zane why one little boy's soul had so much evil in it) that dragged on and were awkward to read. Much more could have been said in fewer words.

The second problem I had with this novel was how "issue-y" it was. In my review of Part Three of A Canticle for Leibowitz, I had complained that the book got too preachy at the end on the issue of assisted suicide. On a Pale Horse is preachy throughout its entirety, just at the opposite end of the issue. Piers Anthony is obviously a proponent of a person's right to die and I don't disagree with him. I'm a strong supporter of people's ability to choose to end their life or to designate themselves as a DNR in the case of an accident or other debilitating condition. But I don't appreciate being hit over the head with someone's viewpoint repeatedly...even if it's a viewpoint that I agree with. Way too much of this book was dedicated to the issue and it just became repetitive after a while. I was, frankly, bored with the topic by the time the book ended.

Other than that, I found this book to be an enjoyable read and an interesting new take on Death as a fictional character. Neither the dialogue nor the preachiness took too much away from the novel and the characters were likable enough that I'd be interested in reading the rest of the series.

I'm giving On a Pale Horse 4 out of 5 Gabriels.



  1. Completely agree with your assessment of the book's weaknesses. :) But, I'm glad you enjoyed the book overall. I thought it was an interesting read, although I've never pursued the other books in the series (yet).

  2. This sounds fantastic! I've been eyeing some Piera Anthony books at my local used bookstore for a while, but I wasn't sure if he was a good sci-fi author. I think I'll give him a try!

  3. I'm really not into Sci-fiction. While at the library a reading group was discussing this book and I sat in to listen. Everyone enjoyed the book, it seem to hold enough conversation mingling fantasy with the real world issues and of course religion. Great Review.

  4. Jo: Thank you again for the recommendation. I found that I liked this portrayal of Death even more than I did the one in Death: A Life. You have great taste in books, apparently. :) I'm thinking of doing a series of series challenges on my own (Dune, this series, Anne of Green Gables, etc.) so eventually I'll get to reading the other books.

    sarahsaysread.com: I'd say this book is more fantasy than sci-fi, but it's an enjoyable read regardless. Hope you like it. :)

    Sidne: Thanks! Despite its flaws, I do think Anthony was able to intermingle different subjects into a compelling narrative with great skill. It's definitely a fantasy more than a sci-fi novel, but it's not for everyone.