Palace politics in medieval fantasy China.
Everything was going so well for Maomao, an apothecary, up until the moment she was kidnapped and sold into service in the imperial palace. Unwilling to put in anything more than bare minimum effort when she knows her wages are going to her own kidnappers, she’s passed three months in relative obscurity, having successfully concealed that she’s had any education. But when the infant children of the emperor and his concubines begin to mysteriously sicken and die, Maomao’s unable to prevent herself from trying to warn the mothers of the Inner Court of what’s causing the illness. Her attempt to do so without revealing her own store of knowledge is unsuccessful, and thus she begins a new phase of palace life, this time as the food tester for the emperor’s favorite consort, Gyokuyo. And while greater attention isn’t what Maomao would’ve liked, the access to the Inner Court’s pharmacy is a hell of a perk.
After a fairly tormented approach to a release date (it changed enough times that I’m not even sure anymore when it was originally supposed to come out), it was with great relief that I sat down to read this in mid-December. I knew next to nothing about it other than the synopsis Square Enix Manga and Books provided when they licensed it, but the prospect of a female-led fantasy title with absolutely no isekai trappings was sufficiently cheering that I’d been pretty excited about it. And while I was wary of getting my hopes too high, the first volume of The Apothecary Diaries made for a decent read. Maomao makes for an engaging heroine, even if an eccentric streak in a female lead doesn’t quite make for novelty; she’s at her best when interacting with others, especially bishounen Jinshi, for whom she has an extreme distaste (which contrasts nicely with his blithe confidence that he can manage to manipulate the “plain-looking” girl). But there’s aspects of her characterization which clashes with the overall picture, such as her inability to realize a particular man isn’t a eunuch. She’s also unable, despite spending a lot of time in and around brothels, to get that a prostitute continuing to use make-up she knows ill-affects her health is less about personal vanity than it is about her appearance being her only way to make a living. It’s not enough to ruin the volume, but its pretty distracting.
If Maomao is disappointing at moments, Gyokuyo makes for a pretty intriguing member of the cast, albeit one we don’t spend a huge amount of time with. Being the emperor’s favorite puts a hell of a target on her back, which means that she must be a fairly careful operator herself. We also catch a glimpse that suggests that while she presents a fairly contented public image, this is perhaps not the life Gyokuyo would’ve sought for herself had she had more options. I’m quite interested in getting to know her more as the series progresses.
I’m looking forward to reading volume 2, which is due out in February; I’m glad I’m not having to wait quite as long for the second volume as for the first (although I’m wary of that date shifting back as we get nearer…). I’ll note, too, that J-Novel Club somewhat recently licensed the LN series from which the manga was adapted, with the first volume of that also scheduled for a February release.