Reviewby Theron Martin,
The Apothecary Diaries
manga volume 1
17-year-old Maomao had just completed training as an apothecary when she was kidnapped and sent to work as a maid in the Inner Court, where the Emperor's harem lives (or is confined, depending on your point of view). For three months she kept her head down and avoided attracting attention, but she could not resist slipping an anonymous warning to two of the Emperor's most favored consorts when she realized the easily-preventable cause of a mysterious illness which had claimed the lives of three of the Emperor's babies and sickened others. That led to her literacy (a rarity for maids) and talents being discovered by Jinshi, one of the Emperor's most trusted underlings, and her becoming the new lady-in-waiting for Consort Gyokuyo, who did heed the warning and thus credits Maomao with saving her baby daughter, the first princess. Maomao also jumps at an opportunity to practice her medicine on Jinshi's behalf, though that means also dealing with his incessant flirting and how oddly pleased he is when she regards him as an insect for it.
This manga series is an adaptation of a light novel series originally published as a web novel. Considering that the novel series ranked #5 on the Japanese best-seller list over the past year, and that all of the titles above it have (or soon will have) multiple anime adaptations, this franchise seems like a sure thing to be picked up sometime in 2021. Based on the first manga volume alone, the eventual adaptation will be quite welcome. The formula it has used so far has proven successful in other manga and light novel adaptations, and I see no reason why this one won't follow in the footsteps of its predecessors.
To be specific, the most prominent and direct predecessor for this series is The Story of Saiunkoku; it would be hard to believe that the original author Natsu Hyūga was not both aware of and heavily influenced by that work. The two franchises have numerous overlapping elements: the heavily Chinese-based setting and court structure; a heroine who is smart, spunky, capable, short, slightly-built, and has worked in a non-sexual capacity in the city's pleasure district; the entrance of said heroine into the Inner Court of an Imperial Palace; incidents of poisoning and intrigue; and of course a man so pretty that he could almost be mistaken for a woman who flirts with the female lead, much to her consternation. The two franchises diverge substantially on story specifics, but a similar enough feel remains that I would specifically recommend this manga for anyone who is a fan of Saiunkoku.
This take on Chinese-influenced fantasy works in part because of how intelligently it handles things, and that starts with Maomao. She is every bit as clever as Saiunkoku's Shurei or Ascendance of a Bookworm's Myne and probably both more streetwise and conscious of the intricacies of her setting than either. A fair amount of what goes on involves her adapting to, and quickly learning to take advantage of, the system that she has been forced into, while also making astute observations about what is going on around her. For instance, she brings up a point that – if true – is very interesting about eunuchs: they are more prone than non-castrated men to weight gain, with the implication being that they replace sexual pleasure with the pleasure of eating. Silver dining items being used as a partial defense against poison also has some historical basis. (In actuality, it only works against arsenic specifically, and its actual effectiveness is dubious.) Maomao is also quick to deduce things based on symptoms and take advantage of a senior lady-in-waiting's ploy to assure that her kidnappers are not further profiting from her. Jinshi's scheming is also not as idle as it looks on the surface; he already has plans for how to best use Maomao's medicinal and poison talents, which is certain to cause tension between them going forward.
Maomao also stands apart from other heroines in this class in her lack of traditional femininity. This perhaps comes across more starkly in manga form, where easier visual comparisons between her and the top courtesans can be made, but it goes further than that. The way she scarred up her arm testing various poisons and cures is definitely not normal, nor is how she has built up poison resistances simply because of her fascination with medicine rather than as a necessary defense mechanism. She also has a pricklier attitude underneath the surface of her outward proper behavior, and is not in the slightest enticed by the beauty of a man whom nearly all other women swoon over. (Some of the most amusing moments in the volume involve Jinshi delighting over Maomao giving him the stink-eye, something which he apparently finds refreshing.) Some of her wording vaguely suggests that she may not be straight, and she has a fascination almost equal to a modern fujoshi in pairing up Jinshi with another man. She will not get boring easily.
Other interesting historical details also abound. Eunuchs as guards and administrators of harems for leaders was not an unusual structure throughout Asian history, nor was the harem being housed/confined in a separate, walled section of palace grounds. The harem was basically a prison for the women chosen for it (a reference to a rumor about concubines who failed escape attempts being found at the bottom of the moat probably has historical basis), and a hierarchy among the concubines based on imperial favoritism and their children would have been common. So would cosmetics which could be poisonous; indeed, this was a widespread problem throughout the world as recently as the early 20th century, and the symptoms described are no doubt based on actual medical accounts. Maomao's observation that some courtesans and prostitutes wore such make-up despite knowing the long-term potential consequences is loaded with extra meaning.
The other key to making this story work in manga form is the artistic effort. Nekokurage convincingly portrays the lavish style and beauty of the leading concubines and how sharply they differ from the maids, especially Maomao; notably, they are also shown to be much taller as well as more curvaceous. Jinshi is also convincingly portrayed as having almost godlike beauty. The fine detail work on clothing – even down to where wrinkles should be – also impresses, though background art is more sporadic and ordinary. The quality of Nekokurage's work is most apparent in comparison to a two-page bonus manga at the end done by the volume's compiler. The 4-koma panels and page on Maomao's weight loss method at the end are, thankfully, done by Nekokurage as well.
On the whole, nothing about this volume is strikingly fresh or different, but it is still a solid bit of entertainment with a lot of potential appeal.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : B+
+ Character design work, historical detail
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