2014’s Survivors is the first book in Nahoko Uehashi’s The Deer King series. The 2023 English-language edition was translated by Cathy Hirano.
The sole survivor of the Lone Antler Warriors1, Van was captured by the Empire of Zol and consigned to the Aquafa salt mine. His life as a slave would have been unpleasant and short, were it not for the black dogs.
Two months after Van’s capture, a swarm of black dogs invades the mine, biting all who they encounter. Shortly after this bizarre attack, disease sweeps through the mine. There are only two survivors: Van and a baby girl named Yuna. Van manages to snap his chain and flees with Yuna.
Otawalle physician Hohsalle is assigned the task of investigating the events at the mine. By the time he and his party arrive, only corpses remain. However, Hohsalle’s tracker Sae sees clear physical evidence that one prisoner not only survived the lethal disease, but appears to have snapped chains no normal human could break, then fled.
Convinced that the disease is the same one that brought down the Otawalle Empire centuries earlier, leaving it vulnerable to conquest by Zol, Hohsalle is determined to find the missing prisoner. Van could provide an eyewitness account of what happened at the mine. Also, because Van is a survivor, analyzing his blood could help scientists find a cure for the disease.
Van has no intention of being caught by Zol’s agents. After putting sufficient distance between himself and the mine, he settles down in an Aquafese community. In this space of peace and calm, he begins to understand how much the disease changed him.
Hohsalle is soon distracted from the hunt for Van. The black dogs continue ambushing people, including members of the local governor’s family. As happened at the mine, disease soon follows. As at the mine, the disease is almost always lethal.
Hohsalle is trying save as many people as he can. This is difficult, as his Zol overlords believe that disease is evidence of spiritual corruption. Scientific models of disease are seen as borderline heretical. The correct response to a plague, as far as the priests are concerned, is accepting it as just punishment2.
The truth, as Hohsalle and readers begin to understand, is that the black dogs have been sent by an unknown enemy. Zol and its subject territories are suffering from biological warfare. It will get worse. When winter ends, fleas will spread the disease throughout a vulnerable population. Zol may fall as Otawalle did before it.
Hohsalle must find the plague’s architect. Alas, clues are few. Van might be of assistance … except Van has no love for the empire that subjugated his people.
While this volume does function admirably at introducing the setting and all the nations and cultures conquered by Zol, it is not a complete novel. By book’s end, the characters understand that they are being attacked, but still have no idea who is sending the black dogs.
The novel is as much about the environment as it is about the characters. The Zol empire comprises many different cultures and biomes. The Zol leaders attempt to disrupt protest by forcibly transporting populations to different territories. The leaders also have odd ideas about agriculture. (Reminded me of the way the USSR moved ethnicities and promoted Lysenkoism.) The Zol are promoting the raising of superficially reindeer-like pyuika. Bad news for farmers convinced by tax breaks to start breeding an animal they do not understand. Novel crops are also leading to failures and famines. But these issues do not directly affect the aristocracy, so there is little impetus for reform.
While the Zolian aristocracy appears to have an abundance of unpleasant and foolish flaws, they are adept at some things. Their military is an unstoppable machine and the empire is good at squeezing taxes out of subject populations. Also, the only other empire of comparable size is somehow even more oppressive than Zol.
The plot does not go where I expected. One might expect a game of cat and mouse between Hohsalle and Van, but the plague largely derails that plot. One might expect a story about resisting the evil empire but in fact, most people (with the possible exception of team contagious disease) accept their lot and seek only to find some accommodation with Zol. The book is driven by a scientific mystery, a mystery not solved in this volume of the series.
Amazon UK only offers the manga.
1: Van’s Lone Antler warriors, recruited from bereaved, depressed men hoping to die, had no illusions that they could prevent Zol from conquering their land. However, weak peoples are off-handedly enslaved by Zol, whereas nations that resist can earn concessions. By sacrificing themselves in hopeless battle, the warriors bought their relatives elevated status.
2: Recent evidence suggests that even when differing survival rates show conclusively that scientific disease treatments (and vaccines) work, true believers will not accept such treatments.