Book Review: On A Pale Horse

Book Name: On a Pale Horse
Author: Piers Anthony
First Published: 1983

Piers Anthony Jacob was born in Oxford, England, but his family emigrated to the United States when he was six years old. He met his future wife, Carol Marble, while they were both attending Goddard College in Vermont. Anthony worked at a series of odd jobs during this time, but when his wife became pregnant with their daughter Penny, he enlisted in the U.S. Army to have a steady income and medical coverage for his new family. In the army, he worked as an editor and cartoonist for the battalion newspaper. During this time, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

When Anthony left the army, he taught public school at Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg, Florida. By this time, Anthony was leaning toward becoming a full-time author. He made a deal with his wife, if Carol would continue to work and support the family for a year, he would attempt to sell one story during that time period. If he did not manage to sell a story, he promised to give up his dream of being a writer for good. Before the year was over, he managed to sell a single short story and fulfilled his compact. He has been writing ever since. Anthony credits his wife as being the one that made his writing career possible, for without her support, both financially and emotionally, he would have never realized his dream of writing full-time as a career.

Piers Anthony is best known for his long running Xanth series, but he has created several popular short series as well. The Adept series about a juxtaposition of two universes, one of magic and the other of technology. The Bio of a Space Tyrant, a science fiction series. Also, The Incarnations of Immortality of which On a Pale Horse is the first novel.

Many of his novels have appeared on the New York Times Best Seller list and he claims that one of his favorite achievements is to publish a book title for every letter of the alphabet. Anthony ends each of his novels with a chapter long author’s note where he talks about his life, his writing process, correspondence with readers and any world issues that may have had an influence on that particular novel. It is this personal touch that resonates with his readers and creates his wide spread fandom.

On a Pale Horse is the story of Zane. He is out of luck, without money or a job. When a gem merchant cheats the man out of an opportunity for romance, it puts Zane into a death spiral. He decides to take his own life with a pistol. Zane lives in a world where magic and technology co-exist on an equal basis. Because Zane’s soul was “in balance”, having an equal amount of good and evil, Death himself comes to claim his soul seconds before Zane pulls the trigger. Startled, Zane shoots death and kills him.

Zane meets a woman who introduces herself as the incarnation of Fate who insists that since Zane has shot the incarnation of death, he must now assume Death’s office and become the new incarnation. A teacher steps forth to train Zane in the duties of his new job, it is Chronos, the incarnation of Time. Zane is given tools to help him on his job, a deathwatch, his pale “horse” Mortis who can assume different transportation forms such as a boat, a plane, or a pale limousine and other magical items that turn this unassuming man into an immortal being who takes the souls of humans and helps to determine if they will be bound for heaven or hell.

As Zane performs his duties, he learns that he was manipulated to be in office due to the efforts of a magician named Cedric Kaftan Jr. His daughter Luna Kaftan is destined to go into politics and end the schemes of Satan, the incarnation of evil. Satan wishes to kill Luna and remove the threat she imposes on evil and thus she is the target for the forces of hell. Only the protection of an incarnation can save her. Zane meets and falls in love with Luna and undertakes her protection. Satan arranges for Luna to die, but since her soul is in balance, only Zane can take her soul and end her life. In order to save her life, he refuses to collect any more mortal souls, leaving the dying in agony, unable to be released by death.

Zane has realized that in his own sphere of influence, he holds absolute power. Even Satan himself has a soul, being the incarnation of evil, and he must answer to death just as anyone else. He is subject to Zane’s dominion. The incarnation of death, uses this knowledge to thwart Satan and protect the woman he loves.

On a Pale Horse is the first of the Incarnations of Immortality series that was started back in the early 1980s. I think that of the entire series, On a Pale Horse and the third book With a Tangled Skein, are the best of the series. However, the other books are enjoyable and I can recommend the entire series to lovers of fantasy novels without reservation.

The concept of On a Pale Horse is quite unique. In a alternate universe where magic and technology exist side by side, the incarnations rule over the mortal sphere. Death, Time, Fate, War, Nature, Evil, Good and Night. Each incarnation is a human who has assumed the office of the immortal. Most are related in some way either by blood or marriage and as the novels progress, the characters relations become revealed. On a Pale Horse is about how the new Death assumes his office and thus, much of the structure of the world is explained in the book. I found Zane to be a sympathetic character and the idea of a man reaping the souls of mortal men to be intriguing. On a Pale Horse would serve as the inspiration for the Showtimes series, Dead Like Me. Disney has also optioned the novel and is developing it as a future television series for ABC.

On A Pale Horse Book CoverIncarnations of Immortality:

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)
Under a Velvet Cloak (2007)

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