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.
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.