Tuesday, June 19

On a Pale Horse – Piers Anthony

Broke, without prospects and dispirited, Zane enters Mess o’ Pottage, a spelled stone shop in Kilvarough, and changes his life. After the proprietor tries to sell him a Deathstone (know your future and change it – Zane’s turns black so fast he’s certain to meet Death within hours), and a Lovestone (Zane is fated to meet the perfect woman within hours), he agrees to buy a Wealthstone – it will locate any money in the general vicinity, reversing Zane’s poverty. In exchange, he has only to allow the proprietor to follow him, then intercept the perfect woman, who will also be perfect for the shopkeeper.
Zane does so, and the shopkeeper snatches a falling beauty from the sky when her flying carpet malfunctions. Realising he’s made a terrible mistake (she’s not only beautiful and personable but wealthy), Zane tries to comfort himself with riches, only to discover that the Wealthstone is poor quality – it tires out after finding anything more often than twenty minutes or so, or of greater value that a quarter. Despondent and hopeless, Zane decides to end it all – which is when the Incarnation of Death, complete with scythe, comes to get him. Startled, Zane shoots the figure, killing Death. He learns that Death is an office, acquired by killing the previous office holder – Zane is now an Immortal Incarnation, Thanatos. Death does not collect the souls of all who die, only those who are in near balance, as Zane’s was.
There are five Incarnations – Thanatos; Chrosnos, the Incarnation of Time; Chlotho, Lachesis and Atropos, the three aspects of Fate; Gaea, the Incarnation of Nature; and Mars, the Incarnation of War – in addition to Satan and God. As Zane meets each of these, except God, who abides by the agreement between He and Satan to stay out of mortal affairs, he realises that humanity is on the verge of a significant shift in the balance between good and evil. Though the details are not known it becomes clear that it involves Luna Kaftan, the daughter of a magician who has arranged for his soul to be in balance at the time of his death. When Zane collects the magician he meets Luna, and over time falls in love with her.
This is the first in an ambitious and complex series that combines fantasy with Anthony’s interpretation of morality, and asks whether traditional ideas of right and wrong are still valid. Zane’s soul is in balance in part because he helps his terminally ill mother to die – technically a sin, but wholly understandable. As Death goes about his duties he collects the souls of infants whose souls are tainted because of the circumstances of their birth (conceived through incest or other rape) but who have committed no sin themselves. It also looks at the folly of man – in this universe Satan advertises openly, using cute cartoons of twin devils Dee and Dee, and serial signs reminiscent of the Burma-shave ads. Despite knowing that Heaven and Hell are real, and not mere constructs, much of humanity surrenders the future for transitory pleasures of the flesh. It is to Anthony’s credit that he manages to do this in a generally light handed manner, and in this series he manages to keep the puns to a bare minimum. – Alex

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