On a Pale Horse

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On A Pale Horse (Incarnations of Immortality, #1)On A Pale Horse by Piers Anthony
Published: 1983

This is my first Piers Anthony novel. My dad was a big fan of him when I was growing up, and I always saw his books lying around the house. Curiosity got the best of me, and I thought I’d start with his most famous.

Zane is a would-be photographer who has fallen on rough times. The story begins with him in an enchantments store looking for something that will change his life for the better, even though he can barely afford food. It’s an interesting scene, and does a good job of introducing the world. On A Pale Horse is set in what looks like modern earth, at least modern for the time, but magic and mythical beings have become a mundane part of life. There are cars but also magic carpets, photographers but also magicians – magic has been integrated into this society in much the same way technology has been integrated into ours.

His times fall even harder, and he eventually decides to off himself. In his apartment, while pulling a gun up to his head, Death walks in. His early arrival startles Zane and Death ends up accidentally taking the bullet. If you kill Death, you become Death, and so Zane takes on the position.

He’s still mortal, and can still be killed, but Death’s accoutrements give him the special powers with which to perform his new job. The cloak protects against harm, and the shoes let him walk on water. He also has several pieces of jewellery that have been imbued with enchantments: an earing, a bracelet with a few gems on it, and a watch. He basically becomes the pimpest Grim Reaper you’re likely to see.

Most of the newly deceased travel to heaven or hell on their own, but those with a balance of good and evil in their soul need to be collected and sorted out individually, which is where Zane and his new magical bling come in. We follow him as he learns how to be Death, and over this time a conspiracy is revealed. We find that it might not have been blind luck that landed him this position.

The premise of this novel highlights what I love about the fantasy genre – being able to personify abstract ideas, for example, and play with the physics of a world allows us to really examine and challenge our regular lives without inhibition. This genre has a unique ability to pull this sort of feat off in a way that’s often underappreciated (and to be fair, often underutilized). Telling lies to reveal truth, as they say. Piers Anthony spends a lot of this novel building up scenarios that are designed to examine difficult to answer questions.

The problem lies in the execution, I think. I really could not get over his style of writing. The dialogue in particular, to me, felt so wooden. Some of it was almost as if he was trying to mimic witty Oscar Wilde dialogue and failing miserably at it, and some of it was just plain ol’ bad. Here’s a fun example:

She screamed “Mr. Z! You’re hurt!” She hurried to inspect the corpse, running right past Zane as if not seeing him. “In fact — you’re dead!”

That was not a flippant, comedic scene, or at least it hadn’t come across that way in the lead up. It was a landlord finding the dead body of a tenant. The entire book read like this – clunky and awkward. I dug some of his descriptive use of language, but it really didn’t work for the dialogue. No one speaks like this, no one has ever spoken like this, and I pray that no one will ever speak like this in the future.

I’m glad I read this finally, but it fell a bit flat. I don’t see myself continuing with the series.

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