What I’m reading: On A Pale Horse by Piers Anthony

Now that I’m in full fantasy writing mode, I’ve determined that I need to do more reading. Not knowing where to start in such a vast genre, I turned to the fantasy librarian at the college where my husband works. Wendy was VERY excited to hear that I am writing and was even more excited to be asked to pull together some reading for me. We talked about my book, we talked about some of the things I wanted to hit on in my book, and where I was currently stuck. Ultimately, she came up with a list of 100 or so books and last week, husband came home with the first batch of 15 or so. 

Some of these books, like the one I just read, don’t need a book review with a star rating because they’ve already stood up to time and some of them are older than I am. However, it still seemed a waste to read a book and then not share about here, so that’s what I’m doing. What I’m Reading will essentially be a non-review book review. You’ll still learn about some books you may or may not want to read and I’ll have an extra bit of incentive to continue reading (and writing!). 

So now, onto my thoughts about On A Pale Horse

What the book is about: 

In brief, On A Pale Horse is about Zane, a rather unremarkable man who finds himself at the end of his rope with a gun to his head. However, just as he’s about to shoot himself, Death arrives to collect his soul and he murders Death instead. Being the murderer of Death, he must now occupy the office and his new job is collecting the souls of the nearly dead whose souls are in balance and their final destination, Heaven or Hell, is in question. It is up to Death to collect them, assess their good/evil balance, and then direct the soul to the appropriate afterlife.

As Zane works to figure out how his office actually works, he visits the soul of the Magician, who reveals Death’s entrapment in a plot, the magnitude of which becomes revealed over time. The rest of the Incarnations (of which Death is one – the others are War, Time, Fate, and Nature) are also involved in the plot, but everyone has to be roundabout their business so as not to stir the suspicions of Satan. However, once Satan is directly involved, Zane has some decisions to make regarding his stance on how he believes the office of Death should be run and for his feelings toward Luna, the daughter of the Magician, whom he has quickly fallen in love with.

What I liked: 

There is a lot to like about this book, the creativity being prime. It is an interesting mix of magic and science, a brilliant blend of science fiction and fantasy. The world is modern (at least by 1983 standards!), but magic is also part of it, with magic carpets and magic stones and ghosts and things of that nature.

I enjoyed the characters and their interactions. For the most part, they seemed quite realistic, especially as the plot line unfolded. At first, the opaqueness of their conversations was annoying, but I realized the necessity of it later on, so that was a fun development to catch on to.

The Author’s Note at the end of the book was also immensely interesting and I enjoyed that almost as much as the rest of the book, if not slightly more so. I love getting into the minds of authors and understanding them a little bit more. So even though, the author’s note was something like 10 pages long, I read and took in every single word.

What I didn’t like: 

At times the language was clunky and what I thought was 3rd limited was some sort of 3rd omniscient, and I wasn’t the biggest fan of that, but overall it worked.

My main issue arose with the meritocracy of Heaven and Hell. Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory exist in this world, but one’s final destination is determined by their works. Obviously, as a Christian, I would have some issue with that, however, this is the author’s world and he can do with it as he likes. In the Author’s Note, he tells us he is atheist and is actually himself, one of the characters whom Death comes to collect and he shares his belief in the form of that character.

I was also slightly disappointed that we never returned to the gem-seller and Angelica. They are mentioned several times, but Death never once checks in to see how things worked out. For as much as he thought about it, I found it strange that he never did anything about it, even though he did more for things that mattered less to him. It would have been nice to wrap up that thread differently.

Overall thought and opinions: 

I certainly would recommend anyone who enjoys reading to read this book. It is a fascinating exploration on Death and our responses to it. The combination of magic and science is very interesting, the world itself is believable, and the writing overall is pretty good. It kept me engaged the entire time.

I really enjoyed the Author’s treatment of Mortis, the Death-transport-mobile, which has some very fascinating functions and manifestations. The author also treated Zane fairly, showing the difficulty with which he assumed his office and the struggles he encountered trying to figure everything out, his determination to try to make up for his ambivalent life, and ultimately, his choice to change how Death operates and is perceived. He brings compassion into a role that often isn’t seen as compassionate and tries to make the best of his office and what it is meant to do.

Even with my objections to the afterlife treatment, I still found it a fascinating read and gave me pause to think a little bit about my own life. While I believe that is is by grace we are saved and not by our works (Ephesians), we are also admonished to show our faith by our works and deeds (James). Our entrance to heaven is not based on what we did, but who Jesus was to us when we were alive. Our works certainly matter, as they either draw people closer to Christ or drive them further away, but the system presented in this book is certainly inaccurate as far as afterlife entrance reality.

The portrayal of Satan, however, was uncanny and even gave me the creeps a bit. Perhaps we think that Satan is someone we could easily recognize or stand against, but this book demonstrates his craftiness and his cunning, playing to our weaknesses, poking at our raw spots to unnerve us and to ultimately serve his own purposes. That was entirely accurate and made me really think about areas in my own life that could be vulnerable to some lies and deceit.

There was plenty of humor sprinkled throughout and it lightened what were sometimes heavy places. This is book 1 of a series, and while I’ve been told by others who have read the entire series that this is the best book in the series, I may still read the rest anyway. Since I am also planning to write a series, if this was less successful, I’d like to discover what made it not as good as it could have been and avoid making the same mistakes.

Again, I recommend this book to readers if you enjoy reading. I certainly enjoyed it myself.


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4 thoughts on “What I’m reading: On A Pale Horse by Piers Anthony

    1. Thank you so much for such kind words!! I certainly wouldn’t have found this book on my own, but I definitely recommend it to other readers.


  1. I loved this series – I remember starting it in high school and eagerly awaiting each new release. Getting hooked on Piers Anthony young. His writing reminds me of my youth.. Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Issac Asimov. The Incarnations of Immortality was such a unique collection of books, and I love how the stories intertwined throughout the entire series. Great review – it takes me back – and it may be time for a re-read! Keep up the great posts 😀


    1. I kind of recall hearing the author’s name before because seeing it wasn’t a strange name, but I’ve never read anything by him until now. A sure sign of a good book is that you’re willing to read it again! Thanks for stopping by!


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