Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
The Apothecary Diaries
Maomao may have solved the mystery of what was sickening the women of the inner palace, but just because a medical professional says that something is dangerous doesn't mean that everyone will believe them, and Lady Lihua, one of the Emperor's consorts, is having a difficult time recovering from the affair of the poisoned powder. Maomao is asked to spend time in the Crystal Palace in order to figure out why. Then as spring approaches, the Garden Banquet, a grand ceremonial feast, arrives, and Maomao, as Lady Gyokuyo's attendant and food taster, is expected to show up looking her best. What dangers and surprises await when the entire court is gathered for the feast?
There's a lot about the second volume of The Apothecary Diaries' manga adaptation that feels like a classic historical mystery novel. That's part of its appeal, and it largely comes from both Maomao's unbending and moderately caustic character and the way that the story doesn't just drop previous “cases” she's worked on, giving the series a depth that it might not otherwise have. This is very evident in the first chapter of this volume, where Maomao is sent by the Emperor to attend Lady Lihua in the Crystal Palace (Lady Lihua's rooms; Lady Gyokuyo lives in the Jade Palace). As you may recall from the first volume, both Lihua and Gyokuyo were sickened by what turned out to be poisoned face powder, but Gyokuyo listened to Maomao and not only made a full recovery, but also saved her infant daughter's life. Lihua was not so fortunate, and the result was the death of her infant son, the crown prince.
That, as it happens, was not the only tragedy. When the Emperor comes to dine with Gyokuyo, he specifically asks to see Maomao and sends her to Lady Lihua because she has not recovered from her use of the face powder. Realizing that this is less a request and more a directive to cure his concubine, Maomao's main motivation in going is to avoid losing her head. But once ensconced in the Crystal Palace, she becomes invested in saving Lihua because, abrasive attitudes (for a court lady) aside, she really is good at her job and cares about saving her patients. She's also very concerned as to why Lihua is still languishing with symptoms of the poison Maomao directed everyone to stop using – having lost the crown prince because she didn't pay attention soon enough, Maomao can't quite fathom that Lihua would still be actively using the powder.
As it turns out, she isn't – but that doesn't apply to everyone under her employ. The reason is a combination of arrogance and ignorance that feels very believable for a society as hierarchical as that in the concubines' domain: because Maomao isn't nobility, doesn't go out of her way to dress the part of an attendant to the mother of one the Emperor's only surviving child, and doesn't hesitate to just say what she thinks, many of the court ladies look down upon her. In fact, Gyokuyo's ladies-in-waiting appear to be the sole exceptions to that, and that's because they've gotten to know her and actively watched her save the princess and her mother. But Lihua's ladies have seen nothing (that they're willing to acknowledge) and therefore don't respect her knowledge and opinions. And who's ever heard of poisoned face powder, anyway? Or the need for special, bland and fiber-rich diets for invalids? What could this little upstart possibly know that could help their lady?
Everything, actually, but it takes quite some time and a lot of pressure to get to that point. The major plot development that comes of Maomao's time in the Crystal Palace is that she has now gained the respect of two of the Emperor's four main concubines, increasing her power substantially. While she herself doesn't seem to care about it, it's important because it stands to make her life as a member of the court much easier – and may also make it possible for her to rise in the ranks in the age-old manner of marrying someone powerful.
Not that Maomao is at all interested (or aware) of that last bit. She's still actively repelling Sir Jinshi, the “eunuch” everyone else is busy falling all over themselves to attract. (Seriously, if he's actually a eunuch and not the Emperor's younger brother in disguise, I will be shocked.) Naturally this makes her even more attractive to him, but what he's mostly drawn to, as we see in this volume, is her broad knowledge base and willingness to act on it. He's also intrigued by her life experiences, which appear to be vastly different from his own – when he sees her all dolled up for the Garden Banquet, an annual court-wide event, he's stunned by the revelation that he's not seeing her with makeup for the first time, but rather without it; in other words, she's been deliberately using makeup to make herself look less attractive. Her reason for doing so (avoiding male attention, specifically while working in the red light district) also hits him, although she doesn't quite seem to understand why, and we can think of his gift of a hairpin as an expression of his desire to protect her so that she never feels the need to dress down deliberately again. Maomao of course doesn't quite understand this, but it's an interesting piece of the story nonetheless, and another bit of information that makes us understand that Maomao isn't just acting tough – she's the real deal.
She's also clearly the best poison tester in the court, as we see during the banquet when she not only thwarts a poisoning, but also spots the major clue as to who the poison was actually intended for. This plotline seems to be in service of her gaining the trust of a third concubine, and it's also interesting in that she has to explain food allergies to the lady's courtiers, since this isn't something that they, or really anyone, understands. Since this is a reality that's very commonly known today, it's easy to forget that such was not always the case, and Maomao's explanation reminds us of that nicely. One downside of this is that we also get to see Maomao's fondness for how poisons make her feel, which, while intended to be humorous, is more than a little uncomfortable if you've ever lost anyone to substance abuse and thus feels rather tone-deaf.
For the most part, however, The Apothecary Diaries' manga adaptation continues to be an excellent read. The art is beautiful, Maomao's the sort of female character who's actually strong rather than just being a Strong Female Character, and the story has nice continuity. If you're a fan of The Story of Saiunkoku or Harem Days: The Seven Starred Country and haven't picked this up yet, you're missing a treat.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A-
+ Beautiful art, Maomao's a great protagonist. Nice story continuity.
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