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On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony

On a Pale Horse

by Piers Anthony

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Incarnations of Immortality (1)

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  1. 20
    Mort by Terry Pratchett (elvisettey)
    elvisettey: Similar theme (Death takes on an apprentice): very funny, and not a bad place to enter Pratchett's Discworld series, if you've never encountered it before.

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ORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.

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

.ORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature. ( )
  Kat_Hooper | Apr 6, 2014 |
Too much philosophical preaching!

I read this book on recommendation, and many fans seem to have been impressed by the story. While it was certainly well written, the repeated logic did not persuade me to see things from the author’s point of view. I became increasingly frustrated by the repetitive rhetoric. What started as an engaging and creative fantasy devolved onto a series of philosophical opinions, ones which I do not entirely prescribe to. My personal experiences with the elderly cannot be reasoned away by a few generalized, stereotypical arguments. Each person’s case is so individually unique, that a narrow-minded perspective cannot hope to persevere here.

I agree with main character’s opinion on speeches of self-justification solely benefiting the speaker. Only I felt even more cheated, because as a reader I was not given an opportunity to participate. Many who are handicapped by their age (young or old) suffer more from neglect and loneliness, than from their inability to be independent. But they don’t seem to be worth society’s time. Let's stick-em all somewhere where they won't get in our way, while we do the important things in life!

Mr. Anthony is right to point out how technology will be able to keep more and more severely handicapped people alive in the future, but he falsely assumes that all or most such patients would rather just call it quits. I have spent a lot of time with the elderly and have discovered that many actually want to live, but suffer from guilt. They don’t want to be a burden on their families physically, emotionally of financially. But what are we living for if not to help others? This selfish nuclear family structure and artificial age segregation is the real problem. Who wants to die in a facility or hospital either naturally or unplugged? Love lies in the sacrifice of inconveniencing our lives so that we can be there for others. Each person is unique, and if we stop to think about it, we can come up with more unique and personalized solutions that are both dignified and humane. No quick and easy shortcuts here. Maybe if we rejected some things and simplified our lives…

Yes, I get it compassion, but, again, the author’s definition was very constricted. Similarly, the concept of love was touched on, but I couldn’t really feel it. I hungered for it, but it never really materialized to my satisfaction. Sacrifice but often misguided or not well thought out. It was frustrating.

As a theist, I was also bothered by the fact that the protagonist, although quick to learn that rules and preconceptions are not to be trusted, never bothers to converse with God. He doesn’t hesitate to reach out to the Devil and the other supernaturals. Why is that I wonder? Out of all the regulations, and parameters he chooses to successfully break or circumvent, the main character unquestionably accepts that God will never bother to listen or interfere. I suppose it’s just a personal point of view. Unfortunately that, along with the generalization of what handicapped elderly truly desire, ultimately ruined the story for me.

As I plowed through this book, the plot brought to mind the two volumes following “The Golden Compass”: beautiful story turned bitter.

One star for sophisticated prose
One star for creativity
One star for a complete story which I was able to finish, although not recommend to anyone. ( )
  YvonnevonInnes | Sep 25, 2013 |
One thing I've always loved about Piers Anthony is that the majority of his books always has some form of an original idea that I havent read anywhere else. I had read this years ago in High School and loved it then, and still do. ( )
  capiam1234 | Aug 14, 2013 |
I am a huge Pier's fan. This was one of my favorites. I gave it only four stars because although I adored the book it wasn't as good in my opinion as some of the others in his Incarnations of Immortality series. Still, I recommend this to a lot of people. The moral issues of right and wrong and the way it is represented is very entertaining. ( )
  AprilAasheim | Jul 7, 2013 |
I enjoyed this whole series, but I thought this was one of the best in the whole set. The theory of how it's decided who goes to heaven or hell is silly, but the premise does make for a very interesting set of stories. ( )
  Snukes | Jun 14, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Piers Anthonyprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Crisp, StevenCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Whelan, MichaelCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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First words
"Death," the proprietor said clearly, showing the stone.
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Wikipedia in English (2)

Book description
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!
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0345338588, Mass Market Paperback)

When Zane shot Death, he learned, too late, that he would have to assume his place, speeding over the world riding his pale horse, and ending the lives of others. Sooner than he would have thought possible, Zane found himself being drawn to Satan's plot. Already the Prince of Evil was forging a trap in which Zane must act to destroy Luna, the woman he loved...unless he could discover the only way out....
The first novel of the INCARNATIONS OF IMMORATLITY series.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:01:00 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Zane belongs to a world in which the scientific revolution has been followed by the revolution of magic, and he is thrust into the role of Death.

» see all 2 descriptions

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