The Man Who Cheated Death: a review of “On a Pale Horse” by Piers Anthony



In my teenage years, I would have told you that “On a Pale Horse,” the first novel of the eight-part “Incarnations of Immortality” series by Piers Anthony is an excellent book for what it is. It is, of course, entertainment and idle fantasy with a hint of sci-fi, which can prove to be fun at times.

From the age of 12, up until around age 25 or so, I was an ardent, dedicated Piers Anthony fan. I read the “Xanth” novels almost religiously and began consuming most of his work with great fervor and enthusiasm. I flew through the “Bio of a Space Tyrant” series, juxtaposed my way into “Apprentice Adept,” snuck in some of the standalone titles and navigated the universe of the entire “Cluster” series in only

The point is, I was a big Piers Anthony fan. I only really stopped following his work about five years back. He even used one of my suggestions in Xanth; quite poorly, I may add. Sending the suggestion was probably not my best idea. I should have known what I was getting myself into, given the fluffy and pun-filled nature of Xanth itself. Ah well, you live, you learn. On the bright side, he did thank me for the suggestion in the author’s note, even if I didn’t like the way he used the suggestion.

When “Incarnations of Immortality” first hit my radar, I was a lonely high school kid. I was not well-liked, unpopular, a bit on the overweight side with acne, and let’s just say I didn’t have the right attitude about anything. It made sense that escaping into a world of magic and sci-fi would be right up my alley. It worked, for a time. I loved the series and still have a bit of a soft spot for it these days. Except for Book 8.



As an adult, revisiting the novel approximately 12-14 years later, I would hesitate to call it a great work of art, but I still ended up enjoying my journey through the story. It was just a little bit different, perhaps some magic lost, but still quite good. Following is my review, which includes a few spoilers.

My first instinct is to say that the story is not an example of superb literature. However, it has value in that it serves its purpose: to entertain, inspire, and provide an escape. The prose is a bit choppy, but, it does manage to get its point across. I initially found the main story interesting, but the protagonist to be stiff and boring. The story concept is unique and it can be thought-provoking at times.

The novel is mostly about a man named Zane, an out of work photographer living in abject poverty. The opening sequence of the novel sets Zane up for failure through an interaction with an unscrupulous shop keep that results in setting up the plot of the novel. Zane is sort of a two-dimensional figure, but eventually receives a bit of character development.

Following this incident, Zane feels cheated out of everything in life: his potential wife/lover, wealth, fame, and fortune. Thus, he heads to his rundown little apartment – running into the ghost of Irish lass Molly Malone along the way (she comes up later as part of the plot, too; FORESHADOWING).

At his apartment, Zane contemplates suicide. He obtains a gun and points the barrel at his temple. Before he can fire, however, he notices the door open and stares into a skeletal face.

It would seem the Grim Reaper himself attends to Zane. When the door opens, Zane panics and fires at the figure standing in the doorway. Zane’s actions set off a chain reaction which leads Zane assuming the office of Death.

Some of the instruments and procedures described seem a convoluted and are not explained in full, especially pertaining to how certain tools are used to do the job. The pale horse, named Mortis (Ha-ha! Punny! I’m not being facetious here and genuinely find it funny), is a nice touch, in that it can transform into a hover car at will. A few of the interaction between Death and his “clients” are well written, evoking emotion at times. These subtle nuances of the story are what makes the story. I especially liked how touching his scenes with the trapped miners, the elderly lady, and the young boy with cancer were written. These show Anthony’s interest in the human condition and provide some much-needed empathy with the character.

Eventually, Zane ends up meeting with the other incarnations of Time, Fate, War, and Nature and falling in love with a woman named Luna. The reader discovers through the course of the adventure that Zane is to act as the foil to Incarnation of Evil, Satan, whose sinister plan to shift the balance of good and evil in the world into his favor “must be stopped at all costs.” Of course, later books in the series paint an almost entirely different idea, so good luck with that.


Pale Horse 5.jpg

Anthony’s prose leaves a bit to be desired. Some novels, like “Prostho Plus” are incredibly well-written, while others, like the Mode series are not. Anthony’s work can be a bit disjointed at times, which is noticeable the further along the bibliography one gets.

While this series is quite solid from start to finish, I will warn that reading past the “Being a Green Mother” in this series will more than likely be a mistake for the typical reader. Books six and seven are good follow-ups to the main series, but book eight, “Under a Velvet Cloak” is horrendous and should be skipped at any cost.

Anthony’s character descriptions are overtly vague and he spends far too much time describing superfluous actions, such as body and sexual functions. The text suffers from excessive filler at times, but I believe this is more stylistically related to the plot of Anthony’s world. Either way, I’m not a fan of these. However, if one can look past them – and there really aren’t that many on this book – the story is quite engaging.

Some shallow secondary characters round out the story, but truly highlight Anthony’s bizarre portrayal of women. He has often been labelled as misogynistic and rarely has female protagonists. In some cases, such as the novel “Ogre, Ogre,” nearly all his

protagonists are female…except for the one male character protecting them. It’s certainly a trend in most Anthony novels.

Another drawback to the story is the mild degree of sexism inherent in the novel, notably in the scenes involving Luna. Occasionally Anthony writes challenging material, and if one can ignore his quirks or accept them as part of the story, that has the potential to render the story itself rewarding.
It does get a bit convoluted at times and Zane is not a well-developed character on the overall. Anthony would have done well to better describe Zane and his motivations. What we have here is a hastily thrown together novel with a cool premise that leaves much to be desired.

With that said, however, this book is an easy, quick read. It can easily provide a gateway into the wonderful world of reading, it can also give the reader an interesting perspective on life and death. Teens and young adults are probably the best audience for the book, but fans of Anthony and similar authors would likely enjoy it as well.

Per Anthony’s rather long and self-indulgent author’s note, it appears that Discworld author, Terry Pratchett critically blasted this book. Pratchett had recently published “Mort,” on a similar subject. In my opinion, “Mort” is the superior work.

In his constant, egregious, self-indulgent author’s notes at the end of each book in the series, Anthony mentions that this novel was originally going to be a standalone book. Later, Anthony -with constant goading from his fan base at the time – decided that the story should expand to include four other Incarnations (Time, Fate, War, & Nature).

A startling number of cross-media has been made for this novel. Innovation Comics created a graphic novel version of the book to be published in six installments. The company went out of business before the sixth could be published. Volumes 1-5, are readily available via eBay.

Be forewarned: the comic is graphic, poorly drawn and the company who made it went bankrupt before the concluding issue went to press. You can see examples at a blog called Off the Beaten Panel, a blog I discovered while researching this review. A simple search for “On a Pale Horse” will lead down a deep, dark rabbit hole of bizarre unreality.



An audio version of the novel is available via Audible. The narrator, George Guidall seems to genuinely be enjoying the book. His commanding, almost academic timbre lends credibility to the story. Guidall also narrates the sequel, “Bearing an Hourglass.”

Unfortunately, when read aloud, some of Anthony’s quirks, mannerisms, inconsistencies and favored phrases become obvious and even annoying at times. Anthony’s excessive use of the word “balk” and the phrase “in due course” are repetitive at best, cloying at worst.

Anthony’s descriptions of a complex action, followed up with the phrase “they did it” seems like lazy writing, but the story is still quite interesting for those whom enjoy their sci-fi light and their fantasy even lighter.

I’ll use the Good Reads scoring system for my overall score: 3 out of 5 stars. I liked the book long ago, but the flaws are many. The core concept, combined with the significance of the book in my life (it’s the first novel Jessica and I bonded over) and the nostalgia of being a Piers Anthony reader make “On a Pale Horse” worth reading at least once.

Piers Anthony can be found online here, if you’re interested in any of his long-winded news letters or learning more about the author.

“On a Pale Horse” is still in print and can be purchased at your local book store or favorite online retail. Also try Amazon if you’re into that Kindle sort of thing.

All images are owned and copyrighted by the original creators. Follow me on Twitter, if you’re into that sort of thing.


End of Watch by Stephen King (Review)

Note: Contains Mild Spoilers. This post is also available on my Good Reads page.

I find iEnd of Watch by Stephen Kingt increasingly difficult to put a Stephen King novel down. Despite its over 400 pages, its shifting perspectives, and its relentless thrills throughout, 2016’s “End of Watch” the third book in the Hodges/Mr. Mercedes trilogy is a solid and satisfactory conclusion to the series.

The novel opens with a vignette style flashback to the night of the Mercedes Massacre, where the now catatonic Brady Hartsfield drove a Mercedes into a crowded job fair line, killing several people and injuring countless others.

Following this, the story flashes forward to 2015, where our hero, Bill Hodges, awaits the results of a medical test, a terrible, biting pain gnawing away at his side. As he sits in the waiting room, Hodges receives a phone call from his old police partner Pete about a murder/suicide. The reason for the call: one of the injured victims of the City Center Massacre.

Thus, begins the final chapter of the Hodges storyline. A theme of perseverance and healing permeates the story. The reader can see it in the way Hodges acts, in Brady’s evil schemes, and in Holly Gibney’s actions and evolution as a character.

As the story unfolds, the suspense growing with each mini chapter, we see a gradual shift of character attitudes. The bonds of the protagonists strengthen significantly over the previous book. King always writes good characters. These are people you probably know from your own life: your shy cousin, your intellectual friend, your older, nice neighbor, or your slightly snotty doctor. The portraits of modern life painted by King can certainly draw you into the story.

King’s villains are also great. The villain experiences growth and learns from his mistakes, albeit in a supernatural capacity. He does not simply stagnate and become the ‘big, bad, evil guy’ that only exists to further the plot. Brady is a creature of habit, with strong personality traits and a goal. We have a run-in with several characters from previous books and King expertly ties all the threads together by the end of the story.

The themes of depression, loss, and suicide all appear throughout the book as well, with the goal to prevent them. Some interesting technology (the Zappit Commander sounds familiar) and a bit of a critique on the smart phone junkies of the world round out the story.

The prose is conversational and cohesive, but a bit long for what it is. The language also follows modern culture, which lends a certain human quality to the story. There are a few parts that are a bit on the grisly side, though, but if you’re reading a Stephen King book, then you are probably already expecting such things.

Reading this novel is like having an old friend tell you a compelling story on a cold, rainy night, when the power is out. There are certainly some terrifying moments, but at the end of it all, you can merely close the book, satisfied with the experience. “End of Watch” is a fitting conclusion to the trilogy and I would highly recommend it for this year’s reading list.

That’s it for today.  Until next time, don’t forget to pour another cup of coffee and play yourself some music! Follow me on Twitter, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Finders Keepers by Stephen King – Book Review #1


The below review has been written to keep things relatively spoiler-free. However, there may be a few items which spoil the first book, “Mr. Mercedes.” You have been warned.

“Finders Keepers,” the second book in Stephen King’s “Mr. Mercedes” trilogy seems like an altogether different novel than its predecessor, 2012’s “Mr. Mercedes.” At first, it seems disjointed, bouncing back-and-forth through different time periods and focusing on a character unrelated to the previous adventure: novelist wannabe, faux intellectual, angry, and irrational Morris Bellamy.

The story begins in 1978, when Bellamy, with two of his cohorts in tow, stage a home invasion of renowned author, John Rothstein. In the context of this story, Rothstein is the author of the “Jimmy Gold Trilogy,” a story chronicling the life of the titular character. The first two books show Jimmy making his way in the world; the third shows him settling down and selling out.

The cohorts are after his money, but Bellamy has other things in mind: disappointed with the way Rothstein ended the Jimmy Gold novels, Bellamy wants to confront the author and find out why. In doing so, he kills John Rothstein and thus begins a chain events that takes the reader through Bellamy’s life from being jailed in 1978 up to his parole in 2014.

At least one-third of the novel sets up the background of Rothstein, Bellamy, the manuscripts, the money and how the Mercedes Killer is involved. In the second part of the story, we meet our original characters: Retired detective Kermit “Bill” Hodges and the obsessive, socially awkward Holly, who now run their own business called, “Finders Keepers.”

Following the events of the “Mr. Mercedes,” Hodges has settled into a life of low profile cases of theft, bail jumping and private matters. Hodges also tends visit the near-comatose Brady Hartsfield often. Having been paralyzed by a smack to the head at the end of the pervious book, Hartsfield says and does nothing. However, eerie things seem to be happening around the hospital and it may just be Hodges’ imagination, but that picture does seem to be falling all by itself. But, that is a story for another day, which King expertly weaves into the narrative.

Between vignettes of the exploits of Hodges, Pete Saubers, Bellamy and other characters, King draws the reader into the story. Eventually, the threads of the story begin tying together, primarily through the characters.

Character development is strong, as is typical of King’s other works. Through the course of the story, we learn all about the history, motivations, lives and personalities of these characters. There is Morris Bellamy, the criminal, who buries the money and Rothstein’s notebooks. Then comes along Pete Saubers, the young boy who stumbles upon Bellamy’s hidden treasure and is faced with some interesting decisions.

The connection to the previous book is a bit tenuous here: it is revealed that Pete’s father, Tom was a victim of the Mercedes Killer and became injured as a result of the massacre. This eventually leads to severe marital tension between Tom and his wife, and significant financial troubles for the family. It’s a forgone conclusion for Pete to anonymously give the found money to his parents. Pete then begins to read the manuscripts contained in the notebook and falls in love with English Lit.

Of course, things have a funny way of working out, when Pete’s sister wants to attend a fancy school and Pete tries to find a way to raise money. Pete ends up falling in with the wrong person at the wrong time, which ultimately leads to a rather satisfying climax to the story.

In true King fashion, the prose delivers an understandable, relatable, interesting narrative. King begins in with a third person view, telling the story as it happened. Later, during the parts of the narrative featuring Hodges, Holly and Jerome, he switches to second person, similar to the style of the first book.

Though King is typically pigeon-holed into the horror genre, this book shows off his talents at writing a suspense/thriller. There are humorous elements sprinkled throughout, which match the tone of the previous book and stays consistent with what I’ve come to expect from this series.

This book is just as good as its predecessor, and in some places, much better. I found it compelling, unique, interesting and I simply could not put it down. Unlike some of King’s other stories, this one is brief and has a satisfying conclusion that makes you want to pick up the next one, “End of Watch.”