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.


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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.

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