Worth a try for fans of political intrigue, or fans of female-led stories who are sick of reborn otome villainess tales.
I am going to cheat a little and plagiarize a bit of my description of the first volume of the manga adaptation of these light novels, as there are really only so many ways I can manage to summarize the basics twice…
Everything was going pretty well for Maomao, an apothecary in the pleasure district, up until the moment she was kidnapped and sold into service in the imperial palace. When the infant children of the emperor’s concubines begin to mysteriously sicken and die, Maomao’s unable to prevent herself from trying to surreptitiously warn the mothers of the Inner Court of what’s causing the illness. Alas, her attempt to keep her own knowledge a secret is unsuccessful, and she is installed by Jinshi, a charismatic and powerful eunuch, as the food tester for the emperor’s favorite consort, Gyokuyo. Thus begins a life that keeps bringing her much closer to the seat of power than she prefers, although her own inquisitive nature itself seems to do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to her entanglements with palace intrigues.
Reading the first of these two volumes, I decided to drop the manga adaptation; the manga is fine, but I much prefer the original, prose version of the story, as while the manga is faithful to significant plot beats, its missing a lot of the beefier detail that these have. (I’ll note, too, that while it’s not a deciding factor, I also like the art for the LNs better than that for the manga, where Maomao is cuted up a fair bit.) It simply makes for a denser story, which suits the material well, what with it being so heavily concerned with palace politics and mysteries. The greater detail given also means that some of the developments hold together better, because the groundwork is better laid in the first place.
The characters, too, come off a bit better for getting more development than the manga has had space for. The differences aren’t significant, granted, they’re just better filled out as living, breathing people. Maomao’s basic core is the same as in the manga, but she comes off as less gremlin-ish and a little bit cooler-natured in her approach to things; some of that is that we don’t have the occasionally ahegao-esque depictions of her reaction to consuming poison, but it also stems from spending even more time in her head than the manga can. (Although she does still suffer from a tendency to not understand choices and behaviors of consorts and courtesans alike that seems peculiar given that she was partly raised in a brothel; c’mon, Maomao, is it really weird that there are rivalries and that these women often prioritize physical beauty over long-term health?)
I said above that the manga version is decent, but… that’s a bit misleading of me. It is decent, but as much as I enjoyed some aspects, I had a sense while reading of that it just wasn’t quite as good as it could be or as I wanted it to be. And while there are still a few aspects that nag in these two volumes of the LN (the repeated reinforcement of the idea that Jinshi is sometimes so beautiful that people couldn’t resist sexually assaulting him is deeply irksome and part of an overall tendency of the book to accept the idea that one’s beauty can cause others to behave badly), I did really enjoy reading them. There’s a lot to sink one’s teeth into for the politics, which is what got me interested in picking the series up in the first place, and a lot of the characters are quite interesting (although, sadly, Gyokuyo, who I found the most intriguing one in the first volume, is barely featured in the second). (Speaking of Gyokuyo, I very much appreciate that it lets its concubines and courtesans be characters rather than, well, caricatures or symbols; I feel similarly about the fact that the pleasure district is depicted as a place that’s not great to end up in, but in which the denizens are capable of carving out their own lives and happiness. It’s not sugar-coating the life of sex-workers, and we are reminded that it can be very difficult to attain a “good” ending, but the book lets the women have agency, even if often its very limited. The ending of the second volume in particular is very bittersweet on this particular aspect… its not a happily ever after, but its better than it could’ve reasonably been expected to have ever been.)
The English language release of these volumes by J-Novel Club is good. I had not previously read anything worked on by either translator Kevin Steinbach or editor Sasha McGlynn; they’ve done a solid job together, so here’s to them both continuing to be the ones handling the series in English.
Volume three is out in September. Yes, I pre-ordered it. The wait will be painful! The wait for the second volume was such that when it got bumped back a bit, I ended up trying The Culinary Chronicles of the Court Flower (also being published in English by J-Novel Club) which… doesn’t really do well by comparison to this series! (A review for that is in the offing; the short version is – its alright but also weirdly sedate about matters that should not be treated sedately.) Another thing I’m waiting on with regard to this series is the question of whether it’ll get an anime adaptation or not, as its currently one of the best selling LN series in Japan (in fact, for the first half of 2021, it is the only LN series in the top 10 selling series in Japan that does NOT have an anime yet). I don’t know that I’d watch it, mind you, but I’m all for getting more attention to series which I enjoy, and we all know anime adaptations boost attention (Jujutsu Kaisen’s recent sales history in particular makes that excruciatingly clear).
Speaking of anime, in addition to the groups I mentioned in the opening line, this series is possibly worth giving a go to those who despair of Saiunkoku Monogatari’s anime ever getting posted to Retro Crush (apparently the masters have been lost).