I’ve long been a fan of anthropomorphized versions of Death. This is probably not surprising, since we have been doing this for thousands of years to varying degrees of sophistication. And some do it better than others. I’m a big fan of Julian Richings’ portrayal of Death on Supernatural. He captures the eerie, inhuman quality of Death as a force of nature older than God so well, managing to appear suave and completely cold at the same time. (Plus, he kind of looks the part.)
In On a Pale Horse, Death is slightly less ineffable. He’s just another everyday working joe, an ordinary human in a somewhat extraordinary office. Zane, having been bilked out of his savings by an unscrupulous merchant in enchanted stones, commits suicide out of despair for his position in life. His soul is balanced—his good deeds and bad deeds cancelling each other out—requiring the person of Death to retrieve his soul and weigh it manually. Except Zane accidentally kills Death, and in so doing, becomes Death. As the story develops, we learn that Zane’s promotion was not entirely accidentally, and that in fact his a player and a pawn in a much larger game.
This is where the whimsy of the writer takes over and transforms an idea into a breathing work of fiction. Some writers could take the description above and create a gritty, noir thriller. Piers Anthony writes with a sort of dry, tongue-in-cheek consideration toward how a society steeped in both science and magic might work. Satan buys advertising on billboards and the radio; people use enchantments and stones regularly even as they drive cars, fly carpets, and ride airplanes. Purgatory is an intense bureaucracy with sassy computers and bored receptionists. It is very surreal and, considering that Anthony, although born in England, moved to the United States as a child, oddly British in texture and tone.
Although I can easily praise the world Anthony depicts, enjoyment of On a Pale Horse probably lives and dies with how much one enjoys the protagonist, Zane. On one hand, he has much to recommend him: despite being so manipulated by the other Incarnations, he often takes risks and is dedicated to fulfilling the office of Death in his own way. He is his own person, and that is admirable. He’s also not a Marty Stu; he is fallible, flawed, and vulnerable—there are times when he comes very close to admitting defeat. On the other hand, especially in the beginning of the book, Zane is a whiny and indecisive moron. So, you know, your mileage may vary.
Indeed, I didn’t quite expect the theme of fate versus self-determination: to what extent are our lives directed by external forces? Yet in retrospect it seems very appropriate to the world Anthony has created, where various forces of nature are incarnated. These forces, while having plenty of leeway in how they perform their duties—Zane spares many people by persuading them not to take their lives and directing them to get back on track—are bound by certain rules. Zane only personally collects those souls that are in balance; he can only affect so many people. And his sphere of influence is limited to death, just as Chronos’ is to time and Mars’ is to war—they can help each other but shouldn’t interfere with each other. It’s always interesting to see how an author constrains a character after giving them superhuman powers. Often, with pantheons, I get frustrated by the very arbitrary division of powers; I think Anthony makes the right call in limiting the number of incarnations and their roles to only a small amount. (I want to make a small shout-out to Fred Saberhagen’s Book of the Gods series, in which the Greek gods are “faces” worn by human avatars. I don’t remember a lot about it, because I read it when I was much, much younger, but the concept was very interesting to my young, mythology-obsessed self.)
Zane is an interesting case when it comes to free will, because he is essentially set up. A magician pays off Fate to get Zane into the position of Death, because he wants Zane to protect his daughter, who has personally attracted the attention of Satan. In return, the magician has done his best to sow the seeds of a relationship between his daughter and Zane (Zane has the first “option” is how he puts it). Zane has no idea what he’s doing, of course. To his credit he doesn’t exactly jump at the opportunity to make the magician’s daughter, Luna, fall in love with him or try to use the Lovestone on her to inflame her passions. But he still feels bound to protect her, such as he can. By the end of the story, we learn the true extent to which Zane has been manipulated; as much as he annoys me at times, I can’t help but feeling sorry for him too.
Related to the fate/self-determination issue, particularly when it comes to death, is the nature of morality. What does it mean to be moral? Most organized religions impose an absolutist, external system of morality on their adherents (and, alas, on the rest of the world). Some people take an opposite stance and claim that morality is entirely relative (this also has its dangers). The weighing of one’s good and evil actions, and the balance of those actions in one’s soul, is a huge deal in On a Pale Horse. Zane’s got these little stones that act as soul-analysis tools: wave them over someone, and they tell you the person’s balance of good and evil actions. On the surface that seems like a neat plot device, a way to give the person of Death something to do. However, it also raises the question of exactly how these stones are analyzing one’s soul and one’s actions—exactly who decides which actions are good and which ones are evil? Because it seems that, in the book, a person’s belief influences the fate of one’s immortal soul: atheists, at least, stop existing after death.
These are not so much flaws in the book and its world-building as they are questions raised by how Anthony portrays society in On a Pale Horse. I can’t really let the book off, of course, because as much as I liked both the concept and the story, On a Pale Horse falls short in several respects.
Anthony portrays women—and the attitudes of men toward women—in ways that are very problematic. It’s probably because I’ve been thinking about this so much lately in other areas (as well as on Goodreads), but this is one of the first things I noticed while reading. It’s right there in the opening chapter, where Zane purchases a wealthstone instead of a lovestone from a magic stone merchant. Zane pays for the former by using the latter to find his intended love, then letting the merchant make the connection instead, thus essentially treating the woman as an object lucky to be wooed. Later on, we learn that even more powerful lovestones can actually inspire their users and targets to lust after each other. It is just another spin on the “love potion” motif, but it’s also very unsettling. I know we are raised, in this society, to find the idea of a “one true love” an attractive and romantic ideal. The proposition itself is rather untestable, but the divorce rates in the United States and Canada indicate that either it is false or we, as humans, are spectacularly bad at finding our one true loves. It all comes back to the question of agency and fate/self-determination: I don’t want an external agency telling me I am destined to love this person.
Luna is a very capable character who somewhat mitigates my above gripes. She faces off against a dragon, and she stands up both to Zane (when he’s being an idiot) and to Satan and Satan’s minions. So that’s cool and tough; I actually like Luna a lot more than I like Zane. That being said, Luna is still as much of a pawn as Zane is, with the added bonus of being expected to fall in love with him as a “reward” for his “protection”. I’m not sure I can adequately convey the many levels of trust issues and issues of power abuse that this raises. All I can really do is say that On a Pale Horse does a very good job of demonstrating why traditional romance (in the medieval sense) and fantasy tropes are often creepy or downright offensive by today’s standards. (I can’t wait to see what future generations make of our writing.) And while this is speculation on my part, I think that those tropes are one of the sources for this book’s flawed use of its female cast. Anthony is very much drawing from traditional, Western ideas about the afterlife, Death personified, etc., and with those ideas come problematic portrayals of women, etc. There is, essentially, a missed opportunity to deconstruct those ideas that I could easily see happening in this decade by another, more subversive author.
Finally, On a Pale Horse has a very dense narrative style that just did not work well with my reading habits and inclinations. Anthony describes a great deal of the scene, as well as his characters’ internal motivations, and the result is a 230 page book that feels much longer. There is a lot in here, in terms of content and reflection, and I think that could appeal to many readers. For me, however, it took a lot of focus. Anthony’s styles of exposition and narration just don’t achieve the unity I expect, though I admit I have rather spoiled myself by reading the likes of Umberto Eco. It’s a minor complaint in many ways, but I suspect many people would agree with me about the significance it plays in one’s enjoyment of a book: if I abandon a book, it’s usually because of the writing style, not the contents.
Fortunately that did not happen here. You won’t see me demanding any awards for On a Pale Horse—it was OK bordering on good, with an extra helping of interesting worldbuilding on the side. I am ambivalent about continuing the series—something tells me it will be a lot more of the same. I’m thinking the Xanth series looks more interesting.