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Makin’ Me Better

Returners  (The Deer King, volume 2)

By Nahoko Uehashi 

10 Apr, 2024



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2014’s Returners is the second and final volume of Nahoko Uehashi’s The Deer King secondary-universe fantasy duology. The 2024 English translation is by Cathy Hirano.

Desperate to rescue his adopted daughter Yuna, Van (a former soldier and ex-slave turned fugitive) catches up with Yuna’s Ahfal Oma kidnappers. The plot pauses as readers are treated to some extended infodumping.

The plot of Returners is driven by geopolitics. The Zol empire is expanding relentlessly, by both conquest and by alliance. They are marginally less horrible as overlords than are their rivals, the kingdom of Mukonia.

Zol is, however, in thrall to a superstitious and oppressive priesthood. The empire also plays favorites with subjugated peoples.

The Ahfal Oma, the People of the Fire Horse, are among the unlucky. They weren’t responsible for a plague that upset Zol, but they were punished anyway [1]. They were exiled to a region that is poor territory for their beloved horses and are now facing gradual extinction. They have a justified grudge and will have their revenge.

Their revenge: a plan to spread mittsual, a deadly disease. Mittsual can be spread by Kinma dogs (or rather, their fleas). The Ahfal Oma have the means to control Kinma dogs. The Ahfal Oma been exposed to a weakened form of the disease for centuries; they are resistant to mittsual. Zol, however, is not. A lethal pandemic could topple the empire.

(Zol could deal with mittsual if it were willing to adopt such methods as sanitary measures and vaccination. But its priesthood is adamantly opposed to any such measures, which they regard as heretical.)

Mittsual gives the Ahfal Oma another advantage: some of the people who catch and survive mittsual are enhanced by it. They gain enhanced ordinary senses and a psychic link with the Kinma dogs. A so-called Dog King can control the dogs.

The Ahfal Omo have a Dog King in Kenoi, but Kenoi is old and dying. Van could take his place. The Ahfal Oma have been trying to recruit Van to their cause but he has resisted. Hence the scheme to kidnap Van’s daughter Yuna. If he becomes Dog King, they will free Yuna.

Even were the Ahfal Oma bid to sway him not laughably inept, Van doesn’t like being forced to do anything. He escapes with his daughter.

Other factions within the empire are open to helping the Ahfal Oma. Pandemic may be inevitable unless Van intervenes on behalf of an empire he has every reason to hate.


Note that there’s a people inside the Zol empire, the Otawalle, that command advanced biological science. They could prevent a pandemic, but Zol’s more doctrinaire priests would protest and would probably prevent the Otawalle from using heretical medicine. The Otawalle would likely be punished for trying.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the triumph of superstition over science were only possible in fantasy?

If the preceding synopsis seems heavy on exposition, it is because the novel itself is heavy on exposition. Van’s adventures and those of the book’s supporting characters are frequently put on hold so that various characters may expound at astonishing length on disease, ecology, and related subjects. Poul Anderson himself might be impressed by the infodumping crammed into the second volume, as the author answers every question raised in volume one (except for the nature of the physical mechanism that creates and sustains the psychic links between human and dog; that remains a mystery).

I myself am fine with voluminous infodumping — thus the seventy or eighty Poul Anderson books in my library — but other readers may want to know that the breakneck plot is subject to frequent infodump interruptions. Many of the characters spend a lot of time explaining things to each other. It might be best to read the two Deer King volumes back-to-back.

Returners is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Chapters-Indigo), and here (Words Worth Books). Returners is probably available in English from Apple Books, but I was only able to find a Francophone edition and the manga at that site.

1: The logic seems to have been someone needs to be punished for this natural event and the Ahfal Oma are someone.”