On a Pale Horse, the first in The Incarnations of Immortality series by Anthony, is an interesting mix of speculative fiction and fantasy. The modern-day world has cars and computers, but also has magic. Ghosts are an accepted part of society; well, you don’t mix with them, but they’re a part of the neighborhood. Most importantly, the world is freely acknowledged to be a neutral battleground between God and Satan for the souls of the occupants.
The book starts off a little slowly, with our main character, Zane, in a magic stone shop looking for something that can rectify his financial situation. In exchange for a money-finding stone, he agrees to use a lovestone to help out the magician behind the counter. He gives up the woman he would have met and fallen in love with in exchange for … a rock that finds pennies. Not exactly the treasure-seeking wonder he was hoping for.
Behind on rent with nothing to eat, Zane decides to kill himself. All of a sudden, his door opens, Death walks through, and Zane accidentally shoots him. Then Fate shows up, informs him that now he’s Death, puts him in the garb, and sends him on his way. Zane, through trial and error, with a little help from Mortis, his car-cum-horse, figures out his position. Then love gets in the way.
Luna, the daughter of a powerful and tainted magician, is offered by her father to Zane before he dies. Luna’s father has unloaded some of his evil onto her so that he can go to Purgatory rather than Hell, not knowing that her soul can’t take it on without becoming weighted toward evil due to some behaviors of her own. Zane is intrigued by her, and they start seeing each other.
Unfortunately, Luna is a linchpin in the fight against Satan twenty years from now, and has thus attracted his attention. That’s when things start to get interesting.
Most of the book, other than the last seventy pages or so, are about Zane getting used to life as Death and adjusting to doing the job. This is quite entertaining — I almost always enjoy the parts of books when a newly-initiated magical or mythical character learns about his powers. I don’t know why. It’s just cool. Anthony writes it in a realistic way, having Zane mess things up that he later figures out, but he’s not a dumb character. He doesn’t need others to inform him what to do, for the most part.
The adventure at the end is pretty good, too. It involves a lot of thinking on Zane’s part, which is fantastic. He’s not there for beat-’em-up action (at least, not totally); he’s there to figure a smart way out of the problems he faces.
The only issue I have with the book is that I was able to guess at the solutions to some of Zane’s conundrums before he does, but that’s not a big problem. It doesn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the book, which I would guess depends more on whether someone likes the genre than about the quality of the plot and characters, which is excellent. Overall, On a Pale Horse is a quick, clever book with an original story. There’s not much more a reader can ask for.