On a Pale Horse (1983) by Piers Anthony – 4 stars
Zane is poor. Jobless. He lives a pathetic existence, and has little to look forward to. A shop keeper attempts to sell him powerful gems that can give him everything he wants. A magical gem that can point him in the direction of a woman who will love him absolutely? Tempting, but Zane can’t afford it. How about one that will grant him wealth beyond imagining? Absurd – that would have to be far too expensive for Zane – who has no money in the first place. How you do you buy something that will in turn make you a fortune? As any great sales person will tell you, with this one simple trick. Zane can have the Wealthstone by giving the proprietor something of equivalent value: the woman who the Lovestone would have directed Zane towards would work for the shopkeeper, who is not able to use the stones for himself. If Zane will do this one simple thing for him, he will have purchased the Wealthstone for himself.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a catch: the Wealthstone, Zane finds out after “purchasing it”, will only send him to the nearest money. So he becomes very adept at finding pennies and dimes hidden in couches, but not so great at stumbling onto vast treasures of unimaginable wealth. Add this to his already extant depression and the loss of a woman who would have loved him had he purchased the Lovestone and used it for himself, Zane becomes suicidal. So he gets a gun.
Before he can pull the trigger, though, Death comes into his apartment, surprising him. Zane is so shocked, in fact, that he accidentally pulls the trigger and kills Death.
And that’s how Zane finds a job.
Overall, I found this a highly enjoyable read. I’ve never read Piers Anthony before, and I always imagined he wrote the kind of fantasy that would appeal to 11 year olds while being fairly tame and shallow. I don’t think this book was particularly ground breaking or layered, I did find it both imaginative and enjoyable. Also, it was apparently the thing that inspired the show Dead Like Me, which I found to be purely delightful.
If you liked Dead Like me, or the Christopher Moore book A Dirty Job, pick this up. It’s not going to change your life, but it should be pretty enjoyable.
Blood Music (1986) by Great Bear – 3 stars
Vergil Ulam is a genius, but he’s also an overweight biochemist with stunted social skills. He’s working on a side project to make biological computers, and he’s using his own lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) to do it. But when his boss finds out that he’s doing something he’s not supposed to, he ends up losing his job. Unable to take his research with him, he ends up injecting the lymphocytes back into himself. These “noocytes” (so-called by Ulam) unexpectedly evolve within his body and develop self-awareness. Hijinks ensue.
This book was quite a change in pace from One a Pale Horse. This is “hard” science fiction. Bear, from what I understand, covered some pretty heady ground in his writing, and this book is no exception. So quick on the heels of Frankenstein, I was expecting a kind of modern retelling, where the scientist creates a monster that ends up destroying him. And – swipe for spoilers – that is absolutely what happens, but not in the way I imagined.
But, for me at least, the book kind of falls apart in the second half. The story gets a lot bigger in terms of scope, and kind of loses sight of how it all started.
I was interested in the story of Vergil and Candice, and his relationship with his mother was interesting, too. I liked that Vergil wasn’t a typical protagonist. He wasn’t really even particularly likable. Just kind of an overweight nerd with no friends who was obsessed with his work. And that started to change, which gave him depth and humanity. I think I’d have enjoyed the book more if that was more prominent.
But that’s not really the story Bear wanted to tell. Which, to me at least, was a shame.