Denver Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Club
On a Pale Horse (1983)
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
10 Wow! Don't miss it
8-9 Highly 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
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