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Incarnations of Immortality is an eight-book fantasy series by Piers Anthony. It tells the story of mortals who assume various immortal offices, becoming the Anthropomorphic Personification of varying concepts. The first five books deal with that person's life as he or she assumes the office, as well as his or her first encounter with Satan, who attempts to use their lack of experience to his own advantage. The series was originally conceived as being only five books long, but by popular demand the author wrote three more. The sixth book tells the story of Satan, and offers a Perspective Flip on some of the events of the previous books. The seventh book deals with a reoccurring character trying to save her baby's soul, and in turn, becoming the Incarnation of good (God). The last book deals with how Nox, aka Night, assumed her Office and became heavily involved in Satan's Xanatos Gambit (explaining some plot from prior books along the way). By the end of the series, all of the Incarnations are related to one another somehow.The books and the incarnation featured in them are, in order:
On a Pale Horse featuring Zane as Thanatos, the Incarnation of Death
Bearing an Hourglass featuring Norton as Chronos, the Incarnation of Time
With a Tangled Skein featuring Niobe as Clotho and Lachesis (at different times), aspects of the Incarnation of Fate
Wielding a Red Sword featuring Mym as Mars, the Incarnation of War
Being a Green Mother featuring Orb as Gaea, the Incarnation of Nature
For Love of Evil featuring Parry as Satan, the Incarnation of Evil
...and Eternity featuring mysterious stuff about God, the Incarnation of Good
Under a Velvet Cloak, which is largely a prequel to the main series, featuring Kerena as Nox, the Incarnation of Night
The series makes use of the following tropes:
All of the Other Reindeer: In For Love of Evil, Satan tries to meet up with the other Incarnations and make friends. With the exception of Chronos, they treat him utterly like crap, to the point of watching while Gaea has him raped by an ape.
Alternate History: Many minor details about the world are changed because of the existence of magic and divinities. Iraq and Iran are called Babylonia and Persia (but still have a war), India is a collection of unrelated sultanates, Islam is not mentioned (though Allah and Mohammed do receive very brief references in For Love of Evil), and "pigskin" (football) uses magic as part of the game, is measured in feet instead of yards, and is an all-female game.
Also, some historical events are changed in-series, up to and including Satan manipulating Chronos into preventing World War II and the Holocaust.
Artistic License – Religion: In Wielding a Red Sword, Mym says that the closest equivalent to Satan in Hindu terms would be Shiva. In actuality, while Shiva is "the Destroyer", he is also a beloved and heroic deity revered by all Hindus. He's the destroyer of evil, the guy who kills demons, and thus could hardly be more opposite to the traditionally held image of Satan (As to Satan himself in this series...it's complicated).
Author Appeal: Piers Anthony has been vocal in the past about his belief that sex between adults and minors isn't really as bad as it's made out to be. This is showcased in ...And Eternity when Vita, a fifteen-year-old prostitute, falls in love with a judge in his fifties and they end up in a sexual relationship. It also appears in the description of the tannana in Being A Green Mother, with girls as young as six performing it and Orlene musing that she can understand why many Gypsy girls are sexually active before puberty even sets in.
Best Her to Bed Her: Asian Clotho in With a Tangled Skein; she only falls in love with Samurai after he defeats her in combat and shows her her place.
That being said, she was using the Sword of War in the fight, and was therefore literally incapable of losing. She forfeited the match so that Samurai wouldn't be humiliated in front of his students.
Better The Devil You Know: Literally. After Parry abdicates his position as Satan, the other Incarnations agree that they vastly preferred him to his replacement.
Big Bad: Under a Velvet Cloak reveals that the Incarnation of Darkness, Erebus, has been working on destroying all of reality for eons, out of a combination of Revenge, It Amused Me, and megalomania.
Bi the Way: Nicolai. Not only was he such a Wholesome Crossdresser in his youth that the master of the house stole a kiss from "her," he states that whether his partner is a man or a woman is less important than playing his role to perfection.
Nicolai appears in Being a Green Mother as someone Orb meets during her travels (and is left to find a rich adoptive family for Orlene), but in ...And Eternity he becomes an aspect of Fate.
Children Are Innocent: Mostly. Oddly enough, children can be "tainted" by their circumstances, in which case they are not evil but are still treated as such by the system.
Clap Your Hands If You Believe: The Incarnations of good and evil gain power by how many people believe in them. When religions fade away, so do their respective Incarnations of good and evil.
Completely Missing the Point: When Zane was still human, he was a photographer. He discovered how to take pictures of people's auras. He became depressed when his customers ignored the beautiful auras and only bought his photos because a side-effect of the aura-capturing technique was that the subject appears naked.
Cue the Flying Pigs/Brick Joke: Orlene, when inside the body of one of the flying saucer hostages, has to tell the terrorists that the captain refuses to surrender control to them. The person she's possessing is too frightened to do so, so Orlene does it for her with the rather ballsy, "when God kisses Satan and the Incarnations applaud, maybe then". And then it happens at the end, once she is made God(dess) and kisses Parry in thanks for him making it all possible.
At the end of ...And Eternity,Death briefly takes a holiday again - and so do all the other Incarnations, for one hour, while they all select a new Incarnation of Good.
Disproportionate Retribution: Part of Satan's desire to take power from God is because he discovered that this is the case in Hell: People are damned for relatively minor sins or sins that were justified under the circumstances. (For example, there's a guy in there whose only sin was stealing food so that his family would have enough to eat.) He wants to change this situation, but is unable to do so because changing the definitions of good and evil requires him and God to reach a mutual agreement, which is impossible because God isn't paying attention.
Don't Fear the Reaper: Zane is unique among Incarnations of Death in that he has compassion and does his best to help people in his job, and hang the rules. Later on, he learns to work with the other Incarnations and stops saving everyone he can, but he still can chat with a dying person if it'll ease their pain. This trait is why Fate manipulated him into becoming Death.
Electric Torture: Luna gets this. Her kidnappers strip her topless and then zap her bared nipples. It's made explicit that it's very painful.
Everyone Is Related: By the ending, every Incarnation is either a member of the Kaftan family by birth, by marriage, or by fathering a bastard on a family member.
Fisher King: Gaea's feelings affect the planet. It rains when she cries, and her anger can cause earthquakes.
Forgot I Could Change the Rules: Played with. In the first novel, it isn't so much that Death forgot that he could change the rules; it's that he didn't know that he could (in fact, he didn't even know half of them), causing infant souls born under questionable circumstances to go to Purgatory and later triggering an end to all death worldwide because he refused to take one soul. At the end of the book, he realizes that it's his prerogative to do what he damn well pleases as the Incarnation of Death, and that all of Satan's rulesmongering didn't mean a damn thing. He also changes the rules regarding infant souls, sending one to heaven instead of Purgatory in the end. The last is retconned in later books, as Death is acting outside of his authority.
Fox-Chicken-Grain Puzzle: Presented as a Demon-Rapist-Girl Puzzle, with three women and three demons, and if the demons outnumber the women at any point they'll be raped.
Friendly Enemy: Satan in the last book is this to Orlene. He tries to tempt her to do evil because that's his job, but otherwise he does his best to help her with her quest, and neither side holds grudges.
Gambit Pileup: Satan, various Fates, Norton as Chronos, Nox, and the Archangel Gabriel have all set up Xanatos Gambits and Roulettes, some hundreds of years long, to manipulate each other, the other Incarnations, and any mortal who might be useful in the final conflict, until everything finally comes crashing together in ...And Eternity. Subverted in the end, everyone won. And I mean everyone. Except Erebus.
GIFT: Possibly predicted in an older form, and alluded to, in Bearing an Hourglass, when Chronos encounters a wall covered in graffiti, and muses that perhaps, in a perfectly free society, people do behave badly. He concludes that both the best and worst in society are equally necessary.
The fact that Satan's agents frequently interfere in the mortal world, while God apparently does nothing, is initially attributed to God and the Devil having made an agreement to leave the mortal world alone, which the Devil of course immediately broke but God still keeps. (This eventually turns out not to be true, but it's initially portrayed as a straight example of the trope.)
At one point, Fate mentions that she cannot physically intervene when meddling in a tangled skein, because that leads to unmanageable snarls. If physical intervention (as opposed to simply cutting and pulling threads) is necessary, she needs to use agents to do it.
An Incarnation cannot directly oppose another Incarnation within the latter's sphere without their consent. For example, Chronos cannot rewind time unless all Incarnations have agreed (including Satan, who can be awfully sticky about it), because otherwise he's stepping on everyone else's past actions. Satan does do this, but even then, the Incarnation in question has usually given their implied consent (for a very loose definition of "consent") or doesn't know the rules.
Good Is Not Nice: Thanatos develops a bit of this by And Eternity. It's the nature of his job as Death; he starts referring to children's deaths in callous, technical terminology, like a surgeon who's been in the business for a while.
Go Seduce My Archnemesis: In addition to Lucifer's attempt in book 6, described above, in book 4, Satan tries sending Lilah to seduce and corrupt the new Mars. Once again, it ends up backfiring.
The Greatest Story Never Told: Satan prevents Hitler's rise to power, and only JHVH and himself remembers this. Orlene, Jolie, and Vita eventually learn about this.
Have You Seen My God?: The Christian God, who is the current Incarnation of Good, is inattentive because He is contemplating His own goodness to the exclusion of all else. In ...and Eternity, He is impeached and replaced by a new God.
Heroic Bastard: Orlene is the bastard daughter of Mym and Orb, but she is a woman of unimpeachable goodness. This becomes a major plot point in ...And Eternity, as she comes to represent everything that's wrong with the setting's existing definitions of morality.
Historical Person Punchline: Or literary person, depending on viewpoint—Lila(h) turns out to be the Lilith of the Bible, while Erebus is revealed to be Cain.
Historical Rap Sheet: Satan engineered the Black Plague by tricking Gaia. He later regretted how far it went, and the experience taught him his responsibility as the Incarnation of Evil. Inverted later as he tricks Chronos into averting the Holocaust and World War II as a favor to JHVH though this costs him his friendship with subsequent Incarnations of Time who till then were the only ones friendly to him.
Horny Devils: Lilah and Jezebel. Not to mention the various male demons encountered, several of which attempt to rape female protagonists. But for a subversion, note that the Angel Gabriel is severely tempted to have a sexual encounter in Under a Velvet Cloak, and eventually does succumb after the victory over Erebus.
The Incarnation Of Death, of course. The first book lampshades it with it's title being a paraphrase of the bible: Death rides On a Pale Horse.
I Hate You, Vampire Dad: Plays a major role in the events of Under a Velvet Cloak, which leads to all the Incarnations being affected in some way.
I'm a Man, I Can't Help It: In ...And Eternity, Orlene is transformed into a man and immediately becomes an aggressive, misogynistic, testosterone-charged boor, attempting to rape her friend Jolie. Upon having her female form restored, she and Jolie are horrified and conclude that "Men have passions that women do not", and that the reason all men are not constantly overwhelmed with violent lust is that "they have learned control".
Possibly subverted, as both Orlene and Jolie were transformed into a specific man (the grown version of Orlene's child) to show what his genetic affliction would do to him.
Incredibly Lame Pun: Because Orlene is a ghost when she assumes the Office of Good, Vita points out that this makes her a Holy Ghost.
Zane in On a Pale Horse. Justified because of the logical paradox that is in play at the time: When he took the office of Death, his soul became temporarily balanced between good and evil. As such, if he were to die, Death would have to collect his soul...and he's Death. Since collecting his own soul is physically impossible, he can't die. Death in general has this. At the end of the book it's revealed that the cloak is more of a Magic Feather: Death can only die if he (at least subconsciously) desires to (Which can happen as Death is guaranteed entry into heaven). As such, the only way for Death to die is if he wants it (Essentially it requires Death to kill Death).
Except for Chronos (who exists primarily during a fixed period of time) and Mars (who dies if world peace ever breaks out), no Incarnation can be deposed if they don't want to retire. God can only be impeached because He's too self-absorbed to even notice the impeachment proceeding; if He were defending His turf, then deposing him would be impossible.
Ironic Echo: In book two, when Norton has confronted Satan and undone his latest scheme to take over, and threatens to keep interfering until Satan gives in and fixes the timeline.
Loophole Abuse: (Spoilers for the end of ...And Eternity) Ain't No Rule that says a ghost can't hold office as an Incarnation. The rule only limits eligibility to those who remain in the mortal realm, which includes the ghosts.
Love Redeems: After falling in love with Orb, Satan tries to resign his position kills himself, thereby abdicating the Office of Evil. It doesn't stick, because everyone prefers Satan to his replacement and the Incarnations fish him out of his cell.
Magic Feather: All the Incarnations' implements function more or less like this. They're symbolic of the Incarnations' power, but mostly act as tools of visualization and control; Death doesn't need his cloak for invulnerability, and Gaea and Satan use their music as an easy focus for their techniques. The only apparent exceptions are the skeins of fate, and possibly the Hourglass.
Magic Music: The Llano, a song that can do strange things. Nature and Satan use it.
Earlier, Orb learns the tanana, which is an erotic Gypsy dance with surprising efficacy on nonhuman entities (although this is more likely the result of Orb's nascent powers), and uses it on her quest to find the Llano.
Cedric Kaftan and his cousin Pacian (Orb's father) both have an inherited brand of magic that causes invisible orchestras to spring up with sparkly backing tracks whenever they sing. Niobe instantly falls in love with each of them in turn after hearing their singing.
Merlin Sickness: Chronos. Understandbly, this gets pretty confusing for other characters. In one scene in For Love of Evil, Satan goes to visit Chronos for advice and finds that the new Chronos doesn't like him. When the new Chronos rails on Satan for his various atrocities, Satan has no clue what he's talking about.
Noble Demon: Pretty much Satan in a nutshell. His reason for the war against God is that the system for determining whether a person goes to Heaven or Hell is flawed, and he gets too many good people. He makes a deal with the Archangel Gabriel to keep the war from harming mortals. He is friends with JHVH, the previous Incarnation of Good.
With a very few exceptions, none of the Incarnations other than the specific protagonists of each novel are ever named.
Despite getting a fair amount of screentime, Orb's bandmates in Being a Green Mother are only ever referred to as "the guitarist", "the drummer", etc.
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep: In On a Pale Horse, Death decides to read his mail against the advice of his household staff, and one of the letters is from a girl who is afraid that she'll die in her sleep because her mother makes her recite this prayer before going to bed.
Now It's My Turn: When Cedric confronts four drunk college students who were attempting to rape Niobe, he deliberately allows them to strike him first, which has no effect. He then grins and says, "Now you have had the first blow, I'll have the last," and proceeds to lay out all four of them in seconds.
Omniscient Morality License: When Zane calls Fate out for wrecking his life in On a Pale Horse to force him into the job of Incarnation of Death, and asks her what right she has to meddle with his life, she calmly puts him down. He doesn't take this very well, but in later books he's become more-or-less used to working as an Incarnation, though he remains one of the most compassionate of the bunch.
Lachesis: By the right of necessity. All mankind will be damned if we don't meddle.
Pretty in Mink: An heiress in the beginning of the first book wears a "magic mink coat".
The Problem with Fighting Death: Well, sort of. If you kill Death you get his job — whether or not it was intentional or you want the burden. Although in that case you can just find someone more willing and let them kill you.
Public Domain Character: Thanks to how long-lived Nox turns out to be (Kerena was from the Middle Ages), both Morgan le Fey and the original Gawain of the Round Table (ancestor of the one from Norton and Orlene's backstory) appear in the last novel.
Punch Clock Villain: Satan, particularly as characterized in the later books, is just doing a dirty but necessary job in tempting humans to sin and punishing the guilty. Most of his predecessors really were genuinely evil, leading to some really ugly office politics before Orlene becomes Goddess and patches things up.
Red Herring: The great deal of time in ...and Eternity spent on developing him, his backstory, and his relationships with the other characters (especially the Incarnations) sets the reader up to think Judge Roque Scott will be the new God; this was in fact Orb's intention when she set Jolie to watching Vita (whom Fate knew would encounter him), and it's what all the other Incarnations think too, and even vote for. Even Satan is willing to elect him due to his sinful nature. But he turns them down flat—mostly to be with Vita, but also because he is too afraid of screwing up the cosmos as God. Orlene is elected instead. Aided by the built-in gender expectations for God (despite God not explicitly having a gender in the Bible, the male pronouns are still used, after all), although having Nicolai become an Aspect of Fate should have been a big clue for other possible subversions.
Rerouted From Heaven: The system for processing souls is rather messed up, due to God slacking off. Zane, the new Death, is unsatisfied with babies going to Purgatory, and manages to get the system adjusted to send them to Heaven instead. Later on, when Parry takes over running hell in For Love Of Evil, he realizes a large portion of souls arriving there don't deserve it, and tries to show the A Hell of a Time instead. Eventually he instigates a Plan to get God replaced.
Reset Button: The ability to push this (albeit only under the most dire and necessary of circumstances, since it would tangle the threads of Fate) is one of Chronos's main and most useful powers. One of its most notable uses is in Being a Green Mother when, after she agrees to marry Satan, Orb's use of the Llano to bring about The End of the World as We Know It is undone this way.
Similarly, the succubus "Lila" sent to seduce Mars in book 4 turns out to be much more than a low-ranking Horny Devil: she was "Lilah", the same succubus that turned Parry to evil, and was also the "Lilith" of folklore who rejected Adam because he refused to acknowledge her as an equal.
In the original book, the office holder of Death is never called Thanatos. The name only is given to him in the subsequent books, to match the fact that all the other Incarnations have a name based of Greek or Roman mythology.
Runaway Fiancé: Asian Clotho in With a Tangled Skein; she runs away from her strict family because she doesn't like the husband they have chosen for her.
Secret Test of Character: And Eternity has one of these, when Orlene asks Thanatos to give her the soul of an infant to repair the damage done to her baby's. He takes her to a dumpster where an abandoned baby is about to be crushed, and tells Orlene to take the infant's soul. She refuses and instead asks Thanatos to save the baby, even if it means failing her quest. Thanatos saves the infant, then explains that the test was to see whether Orlene would value a soul for its own sake, instead of as a means to an end, and agrees to get her a soul from an infant who couldn't be saved.
Self-Inflicted Hell: A person's faith determines what afterlife it gets. Atheist souls disintegrate upon death.
Becomes a bit of a Family-Unfriendly Aesop, or possibly some variety of Take That at faith, when you realize that this means, as far as the universe of the books go, that those who believe will have to suffer for their sins... some intentional, many not... while atheists can be as evil as they want to be without any post-death repercussions.
On the other hand, atheists disintegrate. But that's what they're expecting, they don't consider it any kind of punishment or bad thing.
It is this system that Satan is opposing through the sixth and seventh books.
Sequel Gap: Under a Velvet Cloak was published seventeen years after the previous book.
Shown Their Work: The depiction of Morgan le Fey in Under a Velvet Cloak is neither outright evil (as her usual depiction) nor a poor misunderstood woman manipulated by others and unfairly condemned for her magical nature and adherence to pagan ways (as she is often reimagined as in modern works), instead being a cunning, sophisticated manipulator who works to get what she wants by often underhanded and dark ways but who also possesses emotional depth and well-roundedness and inspires some sympathy—in other words, much closer to her more complex (and conflicting) portrayals throughout Arthurian canon.
Signs of the End Times: Plague, earthquakes, floods, and volcanic eruptions are all the result of singing the Llano of Chaos, which ends all living things within weeks of it being sung. Although one could argue that these are less signs of the end and more the cause.
Spell My Name with an "S": The succubus "Lilah" goes by slightly different names at different points in the series, changing it depending on the persona she is assuming at the time.
Strictly Formula: The first five books, to a lesser extent the sixth, follow rather linear path: We are introduced to the soon-to-be-incarnation, who because of some issue related to someone they are in love with, becomes an incarnation (often because they cannot be with the one they love). The new incarnation gets the run down of their office and the office's supporting cast. Meets the other incarnations and Satan. Uncovers Satan's scheme, and narrowly averts it, usually by learning the full extend of their duty as in incarnation usually using it as a bluff or threat against Satan (Death threatens to kill Satan, War threatens to start the end of days before Satan can win, Fate threatens to cut the strands of fate of all of Satan's minions).
Interestingly, the above plots even happen in the sixth book, where Satan is the protagonist. Instead of beating Satan, Satan needs to beat his successor to reclaim the office. The third book also mixes things up by having the whole thing happen twice - with Niobe first as Clotho then later when she returns as the middle aspect of fate, Lachesis.
Tangled Family Tree: A mild one as things go, but the Kaftan family still has to deal with time travel, prophecies, and temporary agelessness, leading to Niobe's daughter and first granddaughter being born about the same time, and Niobe herself screwing her second granddaughter's affair from the future. Come to think of it, we should be very grateful that Incarnations can't reproduce while in office.
Time Stands Still: Chronos and Thanatos can both do this, though Thanatos only because Chronos lets him.
Mars can do it as well and its implied that all Incarnations can do it. One of the Office of Time's duties is to allow to the other Incarnations to stop time when it is necessary for them to perform their duties.
In fact most of Chronos's job seems to be helping the other Incarnations out when they need to fiddle with some matter of time or another. He does his other main job, making sure time, y'know, exists, just by being in office.
As, in fact, do most of the Incarnations. They make sure problems and important jobs are dealt with, and the small things happen automatically.
To Hell and Back: After Cedric sacrifices himself to save Niobe, Niobe travels to Purgatory in an attempt to make a deal with death and bring her husband back to life, even if it means she must die in his place. Sadly, Death is not convinced that her "but I love him!" argument outweighs the fact that Niobe's survival is crucial to the betterment of mankind.
All the Incarnations visit Hell at some point in their careers. Usually it's a trap, sometimes it's just to negotiate.
Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Zane, while not exactly ugly, is average at best, while Luna is one of the most beautiful women of her generation. Zane was also destined to marry a comparably beautiful and rich woman before a shady salesman tricked him into giving up this destiny.
Villainous Breakdown: Satan in Wielding a Red Sword when Mars threatens to start World War III and the Apocalypse early. Satan may have been faking, though.
Villain with Good Publicity: Satan advertises hell openly as a "Cool" place to hangout to entice mortals to sin and doom themselves. We find out that this is Satan's means of weeding out those who are latently evil, so as to properly classify them under the headings of "Good", "Evil", or "Neutral".
Why Isn't It Attacking?: Zane wonders this about a monster Satan sent after him in On A Pale Horse. He eventually works out that the monster isn't attacking him because it would create an impossible situation: Zane's soul is perfectly in balance until the end of his trial period in office. If the monster attacked and killed him, then Death would have to come and collect his soul...except Zane is Death. Since it's not possible for him to collect his own soul, the monster can't kill him.
World's Most Beautiful Woman: Niobe for her generation, her daughter Orb for her generation, and her granddaughter (via her son) Luna for her generation.
Xanatos Gambit: By the end, things end up arranged so that Satan gets what he wanted regardless of whether Good or Evil ends up in charge of the world. If Good wins, God gets replaced by someone who is going to do the job properly. If Evil wins, Satan gets to take over. Either way, Hell stops getting souls who don't deserve to be there.
Under a Velvet Cloak reveals that the entire series was one for Nox, who was working to stop Erebus from destroying all of reality.
You Kill It, You Bought It: The office of Death is transferred this way. This is also one of the ways the office of Evil can be transferred.
Though Death moves on to the afterlife naturally, with some implication that he gets to go to Heaven as a reward for his service. The previous officeholder of Evil, however, immediately gets damned and can thus be called upon by his successor.