Friday, 10 May 2013

Book Review : On a Pale Horse By Piers Anthony

I cannot believe I haven't read this book before. Or heard of it earlier. The other portrayal of death that I have read is from Sandman by Gaiman. The following is a blurb about the book-

"When Zane shot Death, he learned, too late, that he would have to assume his place, speeding over the world riding his pale horse, and ending the lives of others. Sooner than he would have thought possible, Zane found himself being drawn to Satan's plot. Already the Prince of Evil was forging a trap in which Zane must act to destroy Luna, the woman he loved...unless he could discover the only way out...."

It doesn't sound that exciting, but do not be deceived. This was a great read. It was unexpected. I loved the concept of death being an office that is held. Like any other job, except of course  for the impenetrable cloak, shoes that help you float on water, a gem that is a universal translator, and last but not the least, Mortis. The Death steed, that can turn in to a horse, car, plane, speedboat as the need arises. 

The world that Piers Anthony has built is a great blend of the world of science and magic. Of course the book focuses quite a bit on the magic part. It would have to, the book is from the fantasy genre and not Sci-fi. But in this world the laws of science and the laws of magic co-exist. There are supercomputers and also magical stones that heal and tell you when you might die. There are also cars and carpets that fly. In this world Satan advertises the "virtues" of going to hell. 

In this world there are 5 incarnation - Death, Time, Fate, Nature and War. Unlike Sandman where it is mostly the same person who does this function for eternity, here it is like a beaureaucratic office where different people hold either of these offices at any time. In Death's case the successor is the one who kills the previous person in the office of Death. And this is where our protagonist Zane comes in.

Zane kills Death while trying to commit suicide. And that is how he becomes death. Let me explain why Death came to personally take Zane (because as Zane puts it he is a nobody and did not understand at first why someone as important as death came to personally take him away). Death comes to take those people in whom Good and Evil are in balance, that is their soul is in balance. and it is one of his duties to sort these souls out to determine whether a soul goes to Heaven or to Hell. The one's that he cannot make a decision about are sent to Purgatory, where they become desk clerks and see to the running of Eternity. This means that Eternity is a beaureaucracy.

The definition of Good and Evil are so set in this world that even when someone deliberately tampers with the life support if their mum so that her suffering could finally end, it is considered a grave sin(This is what happened to Zane). The one's that are almost surely all Good are babies. But even babies sometimes are born with the blemish of sin on their souls if they were the result of rape or incest. It is this unfairness that Zane battles as Death. Why should the sins of the parents affect the children just because the rules set millennia ago says so? Zane has to face all this in a world where God is the only one who adheres to the rule of non-interference with the human world. 

Another dilemma faced by Zane is a little spin on sacrifice one/few to save the many. In this case he had to save one, sacrifice many and in the process save humankind. To me it was an example to tell us not to give up. It always gets tougher at the end before we succeed. 

My favorite part of the book was that Death once goes to collect the soul of a man who is an atheist. When he finally collects the soul the soul disintegrates into nothing. This is what the atheist wanted from the afterlife, to go into nothing. So in this world, the afterlife is what someones belief defines it to be. In the same way, Sin or Good are what we think they are. What might be considered a sin might not be so to someone else's perspective, or even to an entire culture. 

The hero and heroine in this book aren't perfect. Zane had a picture of a perfect woman who has never done wrong. But when he finds out that Luna was not perfect he was repulsed by her at first, just for a while, but later fell in love with her for what she was. 

I enjoyed reading this book a lot. Maybe I'm reading too much into the content of this book, but this was what I felt from this book and what I understood. This is my perspective. I give this book a 4.5/5.

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