On a Pale Horse Review
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The first in the Incarnations in Immortality series, On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony follows Zane, a seeming nobody who sees Death as he’s about to commit suicide. Rather than die, he shoots Death and begrudgingly takes the incarnation’s office—cloak, scythe, pale horse, and all.

As Zane (now Death) takes the souls who teeter between Heaven and Hell, he falls in love with Luna, a woman whom Satan is bent on destroying before she’ll be able to conquer evil twenty years in the future. Zane is forced to save his love while shouldering the ambiguous responsibilities of his new office, which makes for a thrilling adventure.

On a Pale Horse offers its readers the unusual premise of Death as protagonist. Most importantly, Anthony’s protagonist is a compassionate Death, who would rather fumble through taking a soul, cause mayhem to grant a client’s last wish, or refuse to take a soul altogether than adhere to the norms of his office’s predecessor. Upon one client’s need to hear a hymn before his death, Zane brings together a rock band and a church singer into a decrepit (and abusive) nursing home. The music blares through the street, causing a riot as the soon-to-be departed receives his last wish. In another instance, Zane destroys a hospital that won’t allow one of its patients to die. These, among many, are the scenes that give pause to meditation on the ethics surrounding death and one’s right to die.

Though it deals with a dark subject matter, On a Pale Horse is a light fantasy, which means that humor is laced through its prose. Some scenes offer absurd situations, while other bits of humor rest in the dialogue through puns or verbal irony. When Zane is unsure whether or not to take one of his clients, that client exclaims, “Now the only certain thing in my life is taxes!” Another moment, when the Purgatory News interviews Zane’s pale horse, the reporter states, “There you have it. Straight from the horse’s mouth.” While much of Anthony’s prose played on such idioms, I never found it tiresome, forced, or unoriginal.

Published in 1983 by Del Rey, On a Pale Horse still speaks to a modern audience, providing a poignant critique of society’s view of death, compassion, and courage. The Incarnations of Immortality series continues in Bearing an Hourglass, following the incarnation of Time, and if it’s anything like the first, it’s sure to be a pleaser. Even if you don’t pick up the second book, though, On a Pale Horse is a fast-paced novel that can easily stand alone, while offering wit and contemplation of the One who rides a pale horse.

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