I first heard about this book during a podcast interview with Bryan Fuller, the awesome showrunner behind Hannibal, Pushing Daisies, and Dead Like Me (three of my favorite shows). He cited it as an inspiration for the premise of Dead Like Me. This did a pretty good job of selling it, even though I initially thought the idea was a bit derivative of Terry Pratchett’s Mort (although it was actually published 4 years before Mort) and thought it would be entertaining “Discworld Lite.”
On a Pale Horse is the first in the series Incarnations of Immortality that focus on the seven supernatural “offices” (Death, Time, Fate, War, Nature, Evil, and Good) in a fantasy world very similar to ours with advanced magic and technology and very thin divides between the ordinary and supernatural worlds. People have both flying carpets and high tech cars, you can buy magical stones to help you find wealth or love, and Heaven and Hell are in an advertising war to attract souls to their realms.
Zane is an unemployed photographer whose fiance broke up with him and whose mother recently died. At the end of his rope, he decides to commit suicide. As he is about to shoot himself, he is startled by Death approaching to collect his impending soul, and accidentally kills Death in surprise. By supernatural laws, he must now assume the office of Death until such time as he as killed by his own successor. The book follows Zane as he learns how to use the tools of the trade to collect souls, weigh their relative guilt and innocence, and shuttle them to their correct location of Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory, with the help of his trusty steed Mortis. Along the way, he ends up being drawn into a tangled plot involving a woman named Luna, who is prophesied to one day defeat Satan, and must protect her from Hell’s minions.
Parts of it made me chuckle, but mostly I was amused by the ideas themselves, and not the execution of it. The jokes, characters, and the writing in general wasn’t as sharp or incisive as it could have been- indeed, I kept thinking of the same idea in the hands of such greats as Pratchett or Neil Gaiman. However, there were some clever and inventive ideas, including Purgatory as a Kafkaesque bureaucratic institution, the depiction of Satan’s advertising to draw humans to sin, and the supernatural nightly news which reports on Zane’s antics in increasingly judgmental ways.
The various scenes of Zane encountering dying people in a variety of circumstances were surprisingly poignant and are really the only scenes that give Zane any real character depth. They help show the difference between the former jaded Death, who had been going through the motions for years and the more compassionate newbie Zane, who rages at the callous injustice of death and often goes against the rules, such as talking suicidal people out of their plans and magically summoning a band to a nursing home to brighten the last moments of an elderly woman.
Unfortunately, outside of these scenes, there is sometimes little motivation for his actions or exploration of his feelings. Luna is a bit boring and nondescript, and there is no indication as to why Zane ends up falling in love with her other than for plot reasons.
Nevertheless, it was a fun quick read. I don’t know if I would continue the rest of the series, which explores the other humans who hold the supernatural offices, as well as details more of the battle against Satan. Have any other Cannonballers read them and recommend any in particular?