Denver Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Club

On A Pale Horse cover

On a Pale Horse (1983)
Book One of the Incarnations of Immortality Series

Del Rey paperback
303 pages (325 pages with Author's Note)
cover art by Michael Whelan


Amy's Summary
Our book ratings
Aaron's Commentary
Piers Anthony bibliography

From the back cover:
       The Man Who Murdered Death.
       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!

Read for group discussion on May 24, 2000

Amy's Summary:   On A Pale Horse - Piers Anthony

This book tells the story of Zane, a young man whose life is on a downward spiral.  After an unlucky experience with magic stones, he accidentally shoots Death.  Then he is fated to take over the office and the accouterments of Death.  He learns his new "job" mainly by doing it.  As Death, it's his duty to personally collect the souls on the borderline between good and evil.

Zane is aided by his staff in Purgatory and his traveling companion Mortis, who can be a horse, a pale sedan, or even a motorboat.  The other Incarnations of Immortality --- Fate, Time, War, Nature --- who also operate between God and Satan, offer him advice.

On his rounds, Zane meets a Magician and his daughter Luna.

summary written by

How we each rated this book
Dan 5 Amy 6 stack of books 10   Wow! Don't miss it
8-9  Highly recommended
7    Recommended
5-6  Mild recommendation
3-4  Take your chances
1-2  Below average; skip it
0    Get out the flamethrower!
U    Unfinishable or unreadable
-    Skipped or no rating given
Cheri 4 Barb 3
Aaron 5 Cynthia 5
Lindsey - Jackie 5
Kerry 9    

Aaron's Commentary:  Piers Anthony - On a Pale Horse

For a novel tackling the theme of death, the tone of this book is surprisingly juvenile.  I had the same reaction when I read a couple of Anthony's Xanth books, but I convinced myself that Anthony had intended to target that series at a young adult audience, and he could hardly be blamed if many adults enjoyed it as well.  Now I'm wondering if it is simply Anthony's style to write in an insultingly condescending fashion.

For example, to make sure that even the most dense reader out there understands that his protagonist Zane has low self-esteem, Anthony has Zane refer to himself on nearly every page as "unworthy," "nondescript," and so on.  This lack of subtlety pervades the entire book.  Similarly, the issues of good and evil, central to the novel, are handled in a childish way.  People are "90% good" or "75% evil." Perhaps Anthony thinks he's poking fun of organized religion's views, but if so he has built a straw man, since no religion I am aware of has such a simple-minded approach to good and evil.

To Anthony's credit, he does try to make some interesting points on the question of death, but he goes about it awkwardly.  For instance, Anthony disapproves of heroic medical measures to artificially prolong life after the patient's quality of life has deteriorated.  So he puts Zane in a hospital ward filled with such patients, all begging to be put out of their misery.  No one ever expresses a contrary view; Anthony has no interest in exploring both sides of the issue.  This is far too obvious to be very interesting and too heavy-handed to be persuasive.  Anthony's self-congratulatory statement in his pompous Author's Note that he has written "a satiric look at contemporary society, with some savagely pointed criticism" is laughable.

If you can get past Anthony's writing style (and judging from his sales figures a lot of people can), this is a pretty good idea for a novel.  The premise that Death, like the other "incarnations of immortality," is an office filled by different people at different times is wonderfully original (at least I've never seen it anywhere else) and makes for great fun as Zane tries to figure out how to be a competent Death.  Anthony combines magic with a modern, technological society in clever ways, such as showing competing billboards for automobiles and flying carpets.  For these reasons I enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book - the last third gets tied up in a very silly battle between Death and Satan - despite my problems with Anthony's style.

What do you think? Your comments are welcome. Please send them to

Our book group has also read the following book by Piers Anthony:
-- A Spell for Chameleon  in October 1995

Piers Anthony (1934-    ) (pseudonym of Piers Anthony Dillingham Jacob) is a US writer of a multitude of books. He is probably best known for writing fantasy, but he has also written science fiction and horror.

Incarnations of Immortality series
-- On a Pale Horse (1983)
-- Bearing an Hourglass (1984)
-- With a Tangled Skein (1985)
-- Wielding a Red Sword (1986)
-- Being a Green Mother (1987)
-- For Love of Evil (1988)
-- And Eternity (1990)

Xanth series
-- A Spell for Chameleon (1977)
-- The Source of Magic (1979)
-- Castle Roogna (1979)
(The three above books were assembled together as The Magic of Xanth (1981) and Three Complete Xanth Novels (1994))
-- Centaur Isle (1982)
-- Ogre Ogre (1982)
-- Night Mare (1982)
(The three above books were assembled together as The Continuing Xanth Saga (1997))
-- Dragon on a Pedestal (1983)
-- Crewel Lye : A Caustic Yarn (1984)
-- Golem in the Gears (1986)
-- Vale of The Vole (1987)
-- Heaven Cent (1988)
-- Man from Mundania (1989)
-- Isle of View (1990)
-- Question Quest (1991)
-- The Color of her Panties (1992)
-- Demons Don't Dream (1993)
-- Harpy Thyme (1993)
-- Geis of The Gargoyle (1994)
-- Roc and a Hard Place (1995)
-- Yon Ill Wind (1996)
-- Faun and Games (1997)
-- Zombie Lover (1998)
-- Xone of Contention (1999)
-- The Dastard (2000)
-- Swell Foop (2001)
-- Up in a Heaval (2002)
-- Cube Route (2003)
-- Currant Events (forthcoming 2004)

ChroMagic series - "more serious" fantasy
-- Key to Havoc (2003)
-- Key to Chroma (2003)
-- Key to Destiny (2004)

Apprentice Adept series
-- Split Infinity (1980)
-- Blue Adept (1981)
-- Juxtaposition (1982)
(The three above books were assembled together as Double Exposure (1982))
-- Out of Phase (1987)
-- Robot Adept (1988)
-- Unicorn Point (1989)
-- Phaze Doubt (1990)

The Mode series
-- Virtual Mode (1991)
-- Fractal Mode (1992)
-- Chaos Mode (1993)
-- Do0on Mode (2001)

Bio of a Space Tyrant series
-- Refugee (1983)
-- Mercenary (1984)
-- Politician (1985)
-- Executive (1985)
-- Statesman (1986)

The Tarot series - space opera
-- God of Tarot (1979)
-- Vision of Tarot (1980)
-- Faith of Tarot (1980)

The Cluster Series - space opera
-- Cluster (1977)
-- Chaining the Lady (1978)
-- Kirlian Quest (1978)
-- Thousandstar (1980)
-- Viscous Circle (1982)

Geodyssey series
-- Isle of Woman (1993)
-- Shame of Man (1995)
-- Hope of Earth (1997)
-- Muse of Art (1999)

Of Man and Mantra
-- Omnivore (1968)
-- Orn (1971)
-- Ox (1976)

Battle Circle
-- Sos the Rope (1968)
-- Var the Stick (1972)
-- Neq the Sword (1975)
which are combined as Battle Circle (1978)

Pornographic fantasy
-- Pornucopia (1989)
-- The Magic Fart (2003)

Non fiction books
-- Letters to Jenny (1993)
-- Bio of an Ogre (1988)
-- How Precious Was That While (memoir, 2001)

Other books
Some early science fiction books by Piers Anthony are:
-- Chthon (1967) his first novel
-- Phthor (1975) sequel to Chthon
-- Macroscope (1969)

Some horror books:
-- Shade of the Tree (1986)
-- Firefly (1990).

Some other books are:
-- Triple Detente (1974, SF)
-- Rings of Ice (1974, SF disaster)
-- Hassan (1977, Arabian Nights fantasy)
-- Mute (1981, SF) -- Race Against Time (1985, SF)
-- Anthonology (1985, story collection)
-- Prostho Plus (1986, humorous SF)
-- Ghost (1986, SF)
-- Hard Sell (1990, humorous SF)
-- The Tatham Mound (1991, historical novel)
-- Mercycle (1991)
-- Balook (1991, YA SF)
-- Steppe (1992, SF)
-- Alien Plot (1992, story collection)
-- Kilobyte (1994, SF)

The Dragon Series with Robert Margroff
-- Dragon's Gold (1987)
-- Serpent's Silver (1988)
-- Chaera's Copper (1990)
assembled as The Adventures of Kelvin of Rud - Across the Frames (1992)
-- Orc's Opal (1990)
-- Mouvar's Magic (1992)
assembled as The Adventures of Kelvin of Rud - Final Magic (1992)
Also written with Margroff are:
-- The Ring (1968)
-- The E.S.P. Worm (1970)

Other collaborations
-- Kiai! (1974, with Roberto Fuentes)
-- Mistress of Death (1974, with Roberto Fuentes)
-- The Bamboo Bloodbath (1974, with Roberto Fuentes)
-- Ninja's Revenge (1975, with Roberto Fuentes)
-- Amazon Slaughter (1976, with Roberto Fuentes)
-- Pretender (1979, with Frances Hall, SF)
-- Through the Ice (1989, with Robert Kornwise)
-- Dead Morn (1990, with Roberto Fuentes, time travel SF)
-- The Caterpillar’s Question (1992, with Philip Josť Farmer)
-- If I Pay Thee Not in Gold (1993, with Mercedes Lackey)
-- The Willing Spirit (1996, with Alfred Tella)
-- Spider Legs (1998, with Clifford A. Pickover)
-- Quest for the Fallen Star (with James Richey & Alan Riggs)
-- Dream a Little Dream (1999, with Julie Brady)
-- The Secret of Spring (2000, with Jo Anne Taeusch)
-- The Gutbucket Quest (2000, with Ron Leming)

Hi Piers - Official home page of Piers Anthony
The Compleat Piers Anthony
Ivy's World of Xanth
Leanie's Xanth Page
Incarnations of Immortality Comic Book
Mundania Press LLC -- Publishers of Extraordinary Books

Return to Home Page - Denver Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Club

This page was last updated October 13, 2008