Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Apothecary Maomao was just out collecting herbs when she was kidnapped by procurers for the Imperial harem, an easy way for unscrupulous people to get money by having “relatives” go work in the Rear Palace. Hiding her skills and knowledge, Maomao hopes to just glide by, earning as little as possible for her kidnappers during her term of service, but such is not to be: when royal infants begin dying, Maomao can't resist letting people know the cause. This catches the eye of the far-too-handsome Jinshi, who elevates Maomao from laundry maid to poison taster to the Emperor's favorite concubine. So much for flying under the radar…
The original light novel of Natsu Hyūga's The Apothecary Diaries is unusual in that its pacing is actually faster than that of the manga adaptation. What that means is that the end of volume two of the manga (published in English by Square Enix) comes at roughly the 50% mark of J-Novel Club's translation of the first novel. In a world where it's much more common for two volumes of a manga adaptation to cover a single light novel, that's a fairly marked change, and to a degree it does make the manga a little bit better at telling the story than the source material.
That's no reason not to check out Hyuuga's book, though. While the light novel covers far more ground in its 226 pages, mostly in fairly short chapters, it also gives us more time in the heads of characters who are not protagonist Maomao. Since Maomao, although ultimately well-intentioned, is somewhat abrasive, having a bit of a break from her not only allows a more in-depth understanding of the plot, it also can feel like a minor vacation from her thoughts. This is especially important because Maomao definitely comes off as a bit of a misanthrope, particularly where Jinshi is concerned.
Not that Maomao doesn't come by her issues honestly. Over the course of the novel, we learn that she grew up with her adoptive father in the red light district of the city outside the palace walls. (Why he works there rather than someplace more “refined” is a particularly interesting bit of backstory.) That means that Maomao has grown up treating the women most reviled by society, sex workers who can't always count on being treated well by their customers, random men on the street, or even the madams who run the brothels – including the higher class ones. All of this has given Maomao a decidedly cynical take on humanity. She's helped her father treat women for some fairly horrific ailments and injuries, and she's also had to dodge the grasping fingers of madams who want to get Maomao into their establishments for decidedly non-medical reasons. This also makes Maomao very leery of her own appearance – we learn a quarter of the way through the volume that she uses makeup to give herself perceived blemishes to make herself less attractive and that she's well aware of the effect her testing poisons and other things on her arm (causing scars) has on most men's ardor.
All that also informs her distrust of Jinshi for most of the volume. Jinshi, nominally a eunuch (castrated man; a eunuch still has his penis, but no testicles, sort of like how pets are neutered), is one of the higher-up officials in charge of the Rear Palace where all of the women live, and he's devastatingly beautiful – something he's very well aware of. He's used to smiling and having women fall at his feet, and the fact that Maomao not only doesn't but also seems actively disgusted by his beauty and flirtatiousness is fascinating to him. He recognizes that she's a little bit of an oddball in other ways, but he admires her quick mind and pharmaceutical skill, and there's a real feeling that because Maomao is so out of the realm of his experiences, she's the first woman he's actually taken the time to get to know. As the book goes on, we see him actively thinking about what might make her happy, even if that means that he won't get to see her. (Unless, of course, that's another man. Seriously, if he's really a eunuch, I will be shocked.)
Author Hyuuga frames the story as a mystery, with Maomao as the detective. While that's true to a degree, mystery enthusiasts aren't likely to find it quite challenging enough to even really merit being called a cozy. Maomao does figure out a lot of things: she discovers the poison face powder (it contains white lead, a real thing that exists in the past, along with arsenic-based cosmetics), identifies who is trying to foment disagreements between the top four concubines, and even starts to figure out who Jinshi really is. But none of these are quite mysterious enough, or get enough time devoted to them, to really classify the book as Mystery. That said, it's very enjoyable and easy to read, and if you go into it expecting more historical fiction with light mystery elements than a full-blown mystery, you're more likely to enjoy this volume.
Things do begin to pick up at the halfway point, although it should be clarified that this is not because that's where manga readers find new material. Rather it's because that's when the scope of Maomao's involvement in the world expands. At a banquet she attends as a food taster, she ends up receiving (all while unaware of their meaning) several decorative hair sticks, and when she starts to get a clue as to what they're for – essentially an offer of patronage – she asks a soldier who just gave her one randomly to help her go home to see her father for three days. Naturally this gets completely misinterpreted by pretty much everyone, and as readers it shows us more of how Maomao functions in her world and how others view her. The plotlines don't get more complex, necessarily, but the way the characters interact does.
The Apothecary Diaries' first novel does tell a fairly complete story in itself, wrapping up Maomao's time in the Rear Palace and offering an idea of where she'll go from there. It's an enjoyable read, one that gets better as it goes on, and if its pacing is a little too fast, it makes up for it in the way the characters interact and the story unfolds.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B
+ Expands Maomao's world and her interactions as the book goes on, additional perspectives broaden the scope.
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