Trigger Warning: This book has important plot and thematic content centered around death and suicide. I’ve chosen to focus mainly on other portions of the content for my review, but I thought a heads up was in order.
After briefly discussing how Death is People Too last week, it just feels right to review The Fifth Horseman by Jon Smith, and not at all predetermined, primed, or planned. That this book released this week (February 7th; I’m a bit behind) and appears to be the author’s debut into fiction books (though he seems to have many other best selling non-fiction titles and other fiction in other media) is surely coincidence.
Certainly, this is not some fated moment, revealed to be the final link in a chain of cause and effect, monitored in the here-after by some unfathomable entity, which will inevitably stir from its pebble-dash cottage to —
It’s like cement with a bunch of pebbles mixed in. I googled it. Real popular, in a place called Thwing . . . Oh and I guess the here-after.
I mean it’s not just pebble-dash, there’s all kinds of weird stuff in the here-after. Candy bars no one eats anymore, color schemes from the 70s. It’s a pretty wild place. Anything dead ends up there, not just people . . .
My attempts at a vaguely humorous opening to this review aside, Jon Smith swings for the fences with The Fifth Horseman, and from the cutting critique of the odds stacked up against millennials, he swings a scythe.
Of course there is a long legacy of interpretations and personifications of “Death” as a character in all kinds of fiction. Smith’s portrayal of the character seems most closely related to that of Terry Pratchett in the almost universally popular series Discworld (the premise of becoming Death’s assistant recalls Pratchett’s own Mort!). In a few instances, I think Smith even references Pratchett by having the character speak in all-caps, but it is not kept up consistently.
We also experience some very Good Omens style horseman of the apocalypse, and one very clumsy Ancient Greek boatman, Charon. Our two main characters, Mark and Emma, run around reaping souls in Death’s stead, gathering tid bits of moral philosophy before hauling the deceased off to The Great Beyond. If you’ve ever played an Assassin’s Creed game, the format will feel very familiar to you.
I was at first intending to decry these structures as derivative and unoriginal, but as I continued to think about The Fifth Horseman after two or three days from finishing (always a good sign), it occurred to me that these things — while fun — where not really the core of Smith’s work. They may have been the stones mixed into the cement used to pebble-dash the walls but they were not the home within.
That home was the trials of our two protagonists and the judgements they faced on nearly every step along their journey in the afterlife as well as Smith’s answer to all the arguments millennials are tired of hearing. Interestingly, these answers are not always rebuttals necessarily.
One example of an encounter which can be interpreted two ways comes near the end of the story when one of the souls Mark and Emma are sent to reap — a brick layer — asks if either of them have ever failed to reap a soul. When they answer no, that failure is not an option, the soul (Phillip) has the following wisdom for them:
“I’ll untwist your mind for you – a mind that thinks it must always be perfect or be punished. Ask your boss if he’s ever dropped his tools and scraped paint that didn’t need scraping, and if he threatens to fire you, you’ll know it was more times than he could count. The good workers are the ones that fail most often but work the hardest to make things right.”
Honestly, not an invaluable lesson. But the stakes of Mark and Emma’s ‘job’, guiding souls to the afterlife, are literally a matter of life and death. As Mark notes, they “cannot afford to fail”.
So what should we take away from this? It’s unclear, but personally I felt that the true lesson was that even with the highest stakes immaginable, there is always room for error, and as the soul states a tad earlier: “…one failure cannot put a man down forever.”
For the last part of this review, I’ll talk about the humor. There are a few good laughs in this book, but I think I was hoping for more. I’m American, and many of the jokes seemed to involve English places and events so perhaps I just wasn’t connected to them in the way someone from the UK might. I’ll quote one joke which I did love and believe nearly anyone can appreciate:
“Come now,” Charon mocked. “You still fighting off yer sea legs?” I thought you young sprats could scrap for hours at a time!”
“Our generation,” Emma said, “can’t even watch Netflix for hours at a time without getting tired.”
So, the humor is there. I think I was looking for more of it.
So . . . Read it?
Sure! But do so with the right expectations. Given its comic lens, and the characters it seemingly shares with Discworld and Good Omens, The Fifth Horseman feels like a natural successor to Terry Pratchett. Reading it with this expectation will be a disappointment for you, and a diservice to the book itself.
Instead, consider the problems and anxieties laid bare within the text. How does Smith try to play the hand delt to millennials? Do you agree with his interpretations? These are the questions that make reading The Fifth Horseman a fun and engaging read.