Length: 303 pages, standard paperback page size/font
Piers Anthony is a famous enough author that even I'd heard of him before getting this book (and the other four parts of the Incarnations of Immortality series) at a friend's recommendation. I hadn't actually read any of his other works, but I went into this with the general impression that he was a respected fantasy author, if not exactly considered to be a great one.
The plot starts off introducing the reader to Zane, the protagonist. Zane is a broke loser who mixes in some laments about killing his mom and losing his girlfriend amidst trying to avoid a pushy proprietor's attempts at selling him a magic stone (in part because he's too broke to actually pay for any of them). After some dancing around, he agrees to trade a woman who'd be a good wife for him to the shopkeeper in return for a stone that'll lead him to free money.
Yeah, so, maybe it's a consequence of projecting my current sensibilities on something that was written in the early/mid-80s, but Anthony does kind of a shitty job of treating female characters as being actual characters rather than trophies. But I digress.
At any rate, to the surprise of no one, it ends up being a raw deal because the woman was a super sexy heiress to a huge fortune, while the free money stone just leads to loose change. Disappointed about losing his chance to be both loved and rich, Zane tries to kill him, and that's when things finally start to get interesting because Zane sees the Grim Reaper and shoots him in the face. Much like what happened with Marvin in Pulp Fiction, that proves to be quite lethal, and as Fate shows up to explain, Death's job has a "you killed him, therefore you are him" policy. Thus, Zane becomes the new Death.
Of course, it'd be pretty stupid if an actual person had to go around and collect the souls of every person who dies, so the deal with it in this book is that Death only shows up in person for those souls who are balanced too closely to go to either Heaven or Hell (duel one, let's rock!) on their own. Frankly, this explanation falls rather flat for me when most of Death's "judgment" is automated by a couple of magic stones that measure the sum of the good and evil on a soul that he's taken, and in the rare cases where that doesn't work, he just takes the souls to Purgatory for further processing. Really, it's hard to justify why Death has to exist as a person in this setting, beyond just satisfying Anthony's desire to write about a non-scary Death. The latter is a fair reason to create a story, sure, but I'm just saying that it'd work better if it wasn't just a meta-reason.
Speaking of meta nonsense, the next chunk of the book is taken up mostly with Death going around and working on special cases which really just give Anthony an excuse to provide some social commentary. Again, that's fine in and of itself, but yet again, the execution isn't quite there. Seeing as Heaven, Hell, Satan, and (presumably, despite not showing up in the story) God are real within this setting, it's obviously set up within an Abrahamic framework. Now, I'm not a religious person, but from what I know, that comes with some hard and clear definitions of acts counting as being either good or evil. When Zane acts as an Author Avatar to talk about how good/evil should be judged by both the objective acts themselves AND the intent of the agents behind them, it's met with no argument from me personally (since I think that context is a key element of determining morality), but it's somewhat alien within the premise of the setting itself. At the end of the book, I assume that it's supposed to be some kind of satisfactory resolution that Zane has managed to bring about some changes in how certain situations are judged on the moral axis of the afterlife, but that begs the question of what happens with the billions of souls who've been judged already. Can someone in Hell file an appeal to be moved into either Heaven or Purgatory because that's where they'd go if they'd died now instead of a week earlier? Conversely, will souls get kicked out of Heaven if they'd be denied entry under the new standards? Such questions are left unanswered, but I think it speaks to a central flaw in the setting either way.
Getting back to the main plot of the story, though, Zane gets entangled in a big conspiracy involving the other four Incarnations (Fate, Time, War, and Nature), a magician's Hot Witch daughter, and Satan. To say more would probably be to spoil too much, so I'll leave it at that, as far as talking about the plot.
Normally, I'd move on to talking about the characters, but before I do that, I want to say a bit about the writing style. Somewhat similar to the narration in the Vampire Hunter D novels by Hideyuki Kikuchi, the story is presented in a third person limited perspective but with the narrator making some remarks to the reader directly. In Vampire Hunter D, the writing/translation was strong enough to pull it off as if the narrator was a person telling a story, pausing to ponder on little quirks or details at times before moving on with the actual narrative. In this book, though, it feels like a cheap substitute for providing quality narration because the asides are pretty much entirely reaction lines like, "What a pickle, indeed!" or, "This was no ordinary watch!" after describing something. If you want to evoke a certain reaction in the reader, do it within the bounds on the story. Fuck, do it by having characters within the story articulate those reactions, if you really want to emphasize them. Doing it with the narrator is just off-putting at best and immersion-breaking at worst.
As for the characters, there isn't a whole lot to say, really. I suppose Fate and Nature show that Anthony is capable of writing female characters as actual characters, and so the weak treatment of females in the general body of the story is more a product of that being a bias from Zane's perspective. The only characters who I actually liked were Mortis (Death's sentient car/horse/boat, who manages to be a lively character despite doing very little aside from giving people rides, kind of like Kokuoh from Fist of the North Star) and Satan. The latter was a pretty great portrayal of Faux Affably Evil, which Anthony deserves much credit for. Everyone else was various degrees of boring and/or preachy, sadly.
In the end, I didn't dislike this book, but it's hard to say why not, really. There were times where the plot showed potential to get interesting, but that was usually followed by being buried under contrived social commentary. It was outright insulting of people from Miami, so depending on your opinions on that city, that might be a plus (I'm fairly neutral towards it, personally). The setting tries to combine being magical and technological, but Anthony does it in a slapdash way with little sense of rhyme or reason, so it ends up being no different from any other number of fantasy settings where more magic gets revealed as it becomes useful to the plot. The concept of having five impartial immortals acting as a balancing mediators on the influences of God and Satan is cool, even if Death's role felt frivolous, so there's that. Actually, I think that's the bulk of it. This book itself wasn't anything noteworthy, but it lays a groundwork that shows potential for the rest of the series.
That's probably the most damning part of it, though. As I understand it, each novel in the series is supposed to be capable of standing alone, so there's really no reason to subject yourself to sub-par work that's not necessary to enjoy the rest of it (assuming the rest is better). On a Pale Horse might be nice to read just to finish off the series, but on its own, there's just not much going for it. Feel free to give it a pass, even if I end up praising other books in the series.
Length: 303 pages, standard paperback page size/font