Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
The Story of Saiunkoku
With her inquest pending, Shurei races to complete the report on financial discrepancies that she and Eigetsu have been compiling before getting some help in getting to court from unexpected sources. With all of that taken care of, it is time for the inductees to receive their first official postings – needless to say, Shurei's is a surprise.
What makes a strong female protagonist? This is a question that gets debated with relative frequency, and answers generally agree that she must be able to take care of herself. Whether that means that she can commit acts of violence with proficiency or that she has the smarts to get out of a tough situation is a matter of a different debate. While Shurei may not be swinging a sword around and does have a fierce protector in her foster brother Seiran, she certainly does fulfill the requirement of being able to take care of herself in a way that few other shoujo heroines can manage – not only by using her intelligence, but also by knowing when and whom to ask for help. Watching her struggle to prove that she can do it all has been a key feature of The Story of Saiunkoku, and in volume eight we get to see it all pay off before she embarks on her next political adventure.
In the previous book, Shurei was discovered to be the target of an unscrupulous official, Minister of Rites Sai, who felt that women should not be allowed to hold governmental posts. Sai, easily identified as a bad guy by his distinctly piggy character design, has thus inadvertently angered the powerful Hong clan, and Shurei's uncle Reishin has done his best to make sure that his displeasure is felt. Shurei, meanwhile, has been holed up at local madame Kocho's brothel getting her ducks in a row, and now is ready to make her appearance to defend herself...if she can get past Sai's goons and flunkies, who have been instructed to keep her out of the palace. Shurei receives help from unexpected sources in a mirror of old tales where kindness given is repaid in kind, bringing us to the showdown between our heroine and those who would stick to the old ways at her expense.
One of the best lines in the story to date comes during Shurei's oral examination before the court, the only way she can absolutely prove that she won her rank by her own merits. Her final question is why she, as a woman, chose to take the imperial exams. Shurei responds, “If I am asked why I wish to do anything 'as a woman,' I must reply that I have no answer.” This one sentence sums up both her character and the underlying themes of the series as a whole – that one's gender should not be the standard by which one is judged. It is a departure from other shoujo fare, where being a “girl” or a “boy” is of tantamount importance and it solidifies Shurei's standing as a strong heroine with clear, non-romantic goals.
Not that romance isn't a part of this story. Ryuki and Shurei share a touching moment at the end of the book, and the included short story about cross-dressing mixes romantic subplot with humor. The love angle serves to compliment the more political storyline, and although it is in short supply in this volume, it still does its job well. Ryuki is a particularly endearing romantic interest, and the other young males in the story make for some delicious eye candy as well. If there is a shortage of fabulous female dress in this specific volume, it is more than made up for by the detail in the backgrounds of the court. That said, the text heavily outweighs the artwork this time around, with word-heavy panels and long explanations around (lovely) heads or over crowd scenes. Seiran gets the most text-free panel time, and some fun is had with the Masked Minister, but for the most part this volume is all about the plot, at the expense of manga's other draw, the art.
The Story of Saiunkoku, rarely more obviously an adaptation of a novel than in this book, remains an interesting stray from the shoujo flock. More political than romantic and with a fair amount to say about women's rights in the workplace, this volume can get a bit heavy at times, but still holds the reader's attention. Shurei's official assignment is a promising one, so there should be some interesting developments ahead for our heroine and her friends, albeit with a probably decrease in the romantic subplot. Shurei is an engaging heroine with strong goals who can more than carry the story, and those who are tired of high school romances but still love their shoujo should really check this one out.
Overall : B
Story : B+
Art : B-
+ Shurei's strengths come across clearly, short story is very funny. Promising ending points us towards potential plot developments.
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