Zane is Death. He has some cool accoutrements to go with the job - the obligatory scythe, some Batman-esque body armor, and a pale horse named Morits who can morph into being a boat or a car at the push of a button. He's also invisible to most people.
Zane didn't ask for this newly-acquired job. He was trying to kill himself and accidentally shot the previous Death instead. And hey, you know what they say - if you slay 'em, you gotta play 'em.
What's To Like...
Piers Anthony develpos a neat alternate universe; one where Magic and Science are on equal footing. So you are just as likely to take a car as you are a flying carpet. Hunting dragons is way fun, but try not to run into any ghosts along the way.
He also creates a fascinating cosmology - with a Heaven, a Hell, and a Purgatory; God and Satan (who is heavily into advertising); demons and (presumably) angels; and seven offices in between mortals and gods - Time, Fate, War, Nature, Good, Evil, and of course, Death.
The story is well-structured, but frankly not compelling. But that's okay; the main raison d'être of On A Pale Horse is to allow the author to offer insight and opinions on various Death-related topics, such as : crack babies, children with cancer, atheists, suicide, death in combat, assisted suicide, and the Afterlife and Eternity. We follow Zane, a reluctant hero, as he learns his new job, meets and interplays with the other Incarnations, falls in love, and ultimately has a showdown with Satan hmself.
Kewlest New Word...
Effulgence : A brilliant radiance; the sending out of bright rays of light.
"What happens now?" he asked Fate, His body was shaking, and he felt unpleasantly faint.
"You fold the soul, pack it in your pouch, and go on to the next client," she answered. "When you have a break in the schedule, you will analyze the soul, to determine to which sphere it should be relegated."
"Which sphere?" His mind refused to focus, as if his very thoughts were blinded by the client's blood.
"Heaven or Hell."
"But I'm no judge of souls!" he protested.
"Yes, you are - now. Try not to make too many mistakes." Fate turned and walked away. (pg. 34)
"What refuge do these dead soldiers have," Zane asked, discomfited. "How did this battle help them?"
"They have glory," Mars explained. "All men must die sometime, and most go ignominiously from age or illness or mishap. Only in war do large numbers get to expire in decent glory."
"Glory?" Zane thought of his recent client, impaled agonizingly on a wooden stake. "Seems more like gory to me."
Mars bellowed out his laughter. "Cute, Death! You perceive only the instant of discomfort; I perceive the eternal reputation. A moment of pain for eternal fame! These men are sacrificing their blood on the altar of righteousness. This is the termination that renders their entire mundane lives sublime."
"But what about those who die fighting for the wrong cause?"
"There is no wrong cause! There are only alternate avenues to glory and honor." (pg. 100)
"Circumstance makes puppets of us all". (pg. 188)
There are some negatives. The women in OAPH are weak, with little purpose other than to look pretty and be available for sex. The 16-page "Author's Note" at the back is boring, self-serving, and eminently skippable. And there is some obsessive "padding" of the Amazon review scores, presumably by the author himself.
On A Pale Horse is in a different vein than the other Piers Anthony books I've read, which were all from the Xanth series. Things are more somber and serious here, appropriate, I suppose, when dealing with such a topic. There still is wit, but don't read this when you want Xanth humor.
The concept of this series is excellent, as is the storyline in On A Pale Horse. But the execution could have been done better, and the negatives pull it down. We'll give it 7 Stars, but still read a couple more books in the series to see if things improve.