Book #58: On a Pale Horse (1983)

300x300author: Piers Anthony
language: English
length: 716 minutes (11 hours 56 minutes)
finished listening on: 18 May 2014

This was the next thing I delved into from the Humble Bundle. It’s quite long, as audiobooks go, but that’s not the reason it took me over a month to finish it (I’ve finished longer books in much less time!). I plain didn’t like it after a while. It starts out well, but gets boring and became a chore to continue.

The premise should be exciting: the main character tries to commit suicide after a series of things go wrong for him, but freaks out and shoots Death in the face instead. Thus he himself becomes Death himself, and meets a variety of other “incarnations of immortality” (also the name of the series that this book is the first episode of) including Time, Fate, War, and so on. Satan and God also put their nose in. It’s set in a parallel universe where magic and technology co-exist, which presumably explains the physical existence of these incarnations, and also allows such things as dragons. If it wasn’t written over thirty years ago I’d say it was copying Harry Potter.

Indeed, I was interested for the first few chapters, but it turned into a strange kind of philosophical treatise about the nature of religion and sin. Anthony’s personal philosophy about how sin works is, apparently, that people’s good deeds and bad deeds are literally weighed up on some kind of scales, and if they’re unbalanced, the person will go straight to heaven or hell, and if they’re balanced almost exactly, Death has to step in and personally judge the person’s soul. And if Death’s not sure, they will have to stay in purgatory, and personally complete a sick parody of a tax return to work it all out.

It gets complicated when Christian mythology is referenced. It’s implied that the incarnations are what they are (ie, straight out of Revelations) because Christianity is the dominant religion – sure, in the West! What about all the other big religions? Christianity isn’t dominant for two thirds of the world’s population, after all. It also ignores the messiah part – like, the central part – of Christian doctrine entirely (Jesus is never mentioned, that is), which would kind of negates the whole idea of good deeds and bad deeds being weighed up. The disconnect became clear when I listened to a bit of the author’s note at the end that Anthony actually doesn’t believe in God himself, but then it entirely calls into question his treatment of the atheist character, whose soul simply dissolves into dust and who is outwardly referred to as “strange” by Death. That was a more offputting section than the others because I felt like I was being personally attacked for holding no belief in God.

But that wasn’t the place where Anthony crossed the line; far from it. He crossed the line in his treatment of rape and his idea of what constitutes it. In his world, babies born out of rape inherit the sin of the rape, and are born impure, and have to be reaped by Death instead of going straight to heaven, like the good pure babies. That’s a bit of an ugly idea in itself, but the moment where I almost threw down my iPhone in disgust was when a ten year old kid was impure because he’d been having sexual relations with a grown woman, and the author literally muses that if it’d been a man raping a girl, it would be unambiguously the man committing the sin and the girl would remain free of sin, but the other way round, the woman is doing a favour to the young boy. As if he’s asking, what young boy wouldn’t want to be raped by an older woman? For fuck’s sake.

It’s also just boring, and badly written. The next book in the series is on the next Humble Bundle, which I’ve bought now, but I think I’m just going to skip over it. Don’t read this.

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