Ossus Library Index
Fantasy Index


A novel by Piers Anthony
(1986, Del Rey)

Incarnations of Immortality, book 1

After killing Death, a man takes his place, and modifies the job to include compassion, while the Devil conspires to take the soul of his true love, removing an obstacle to world domination.


+ -- First reading (paperback)
September 17th to 26th, 2021


I was very impressed by the different deaths that Zane presided over, and the way he judged them. From suicide, to babies, to trapped miners, crash victims, elderly people and more, each situation was unique and the author was able to offer up a social commentary that I think was very relevant. My favorite one was the choir singing to the old man who was trapped in the old age home -literally strapped to his chair. The biggest problem with this book is the portrayal of women, which is creepy. Like an immature boy, Zane attributes physical beauty to every woman, barely touching on the looks of the men. I can’t even attribute this to the time in which the book was written, as I’ve read many contemporary books that don’t have this problem. I also don’t think it was a result of the character, as it was written more like it came from the author. Still, I liked the world that this story takes place in, a place where magic exists side-by-side with science. Anything technological can be reproduced by magical spells. The fight between God and Satan took up a lot of the later story, but was not as interesting to me as the judgements on death itself.

Spoiler review:

My favorite parts of this book revolved around the commentaries on different kinds of deaths. Does religion have anything to do with where people go? How can we judge a baby who was the result of a violent conception? How do quick deaths compare with long, drawn-out deaths? The author seems to cover it all.

The main struggle is between God and Satan, in a world that contains both science and magic. High-tech airplanes and cars move alongside flying carpets. When Zane’s life seems too much for him to handle, he decides to commit suicide, but is interrupted by the arrival of Death, whom he kills on instinct. As with The Santa Clause, this gives Zane the job automatically -and he can’t back down.

Being the kind of obsessive person he is, Zane can’t ignore the job, so tries to figure it out on his own, with the help from the Incarnates Fate, Time, War, and Nature, and with the interference of Satan. God doesn’t get involved, and trusts that everything will work out according to His plan, which it does, more or less.

The struggle centers around Zane’s attraction to a particular woman, Luna. As Death, he doesn’t have a hand in choosing where souls go, except when they are so close to neutral that they need extra analysis. The magician whom Zane visits has intentionally balanced his soul so Zane has to go to him. The magician offers Zane his daughter. At first, it seems like a pimping setup, and truly it is, but for the greater good. Zane resists, even though he is drawn to the woman in his megalomaniacal way -he always describes the woman in terms of their beautifulness and desirableness, while the men barely get any of the same treatment. After speaking with several of the Incarnates, Zane realizes that Luna’s father was in league with them all, because Luna could bring around change that prevents Satan from taking over the world in a couple of decades.

In his quest to keep Luna safe, Zane turns back time, confronts each of the Incarnates, and continues to do his job. Until Luna tries to sacrifice herself as a virgin to a dragon in the mountains. Then he goes on strike. This brings Satan out of Hell to negotiate with him. Satan gives him a tour of Hell, showing how good the people have it there, and trying to hide the fact that he isn’t in the business of reform, but torture. It was truly an impressive picture of Hell.

When this scheme fails, Satan goes on the attack, but because of his discussions with the Incarnates, Zane finally realizes that Satan has no power over him -he’s just another Incarnate, trying to cheat his way into getting more souls. This breaks the cycle, and Satan is forced to release his hold on Luna. Not only has Zane saved her, but he’s prevented a massive takeover in the future. The whole scheme was initiated by the other Incarnates because they foresaw what could happen, and acted to have Zane kill Death.

The story is really just a backdrop for various commentaries on Death itself. Zane saves a boy who can be redeemed from his guilt by turning back time to before the building fire. He tries to negotiate the release of a baby whose soul is tainted by rape and incest. He talks with two miners as they slowly suffocate to death in a collapsed mine shaft. But my favorite part was the dying man in the abusive senior’s residence, who asks for a song. Zane arranges for a choir and a bad music band to play for him, and gets the whole community into the spirit.

It’s too bad that the author treats women as prizes with their looks and desirability, because it detracts from the story. A love spell or gem is one thing, filling a person with lust, but he obsesses over it, from the loss of his ideal woman on the flying carpet, to Luna, including Satan’s desire for her. Ironically, it’s the ghost woman who gets the best development, as she recognizes the dangers and lies of Satan as she helps guide Zane and visits some of her friends.

Finally, Death has a lot of very cool resources at his disposal. There’s the titular horse that can transform into a sports car or even a boat, the watch that can stop time and allows him to identify people who need his services, and his cool house in purgatory, close to the research center. The computer at the purgatory center is very early 1980s, with the green screen text, but maybe they don’t get enough funding to upgrade to smartphones!


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