Well… its fine.
Ayako is the ninth daughter of the emperor of Konkoku… but she’s spent most of her life as the Umashi-no-Miya, the sacred cook for the god Kunimamori-no-Okami. In practice, this has meant living solely with her older sister, who serves as a living representative of the god. Alas, as much as she values this role, when the grand Wakoku, to which Konkoku is a vassal state, has a new emperor coronated, Ayako finds herself re-dubbed as Setsu Rimi and packed off to join the palace as a concubine. She’s helped by a kindly scholar, Shusei, when she arrives at the palace, but his is a lone friendly face as she struggles to adjust to her new life in a foreign land. Rimi’s lack of familiarity with the language as well as her seemingly exotic cultural differences make the change an uncomfortable one. When she finds her way to a kitchen in the rear palace, it seems that she might be able to find her niche anew… but that’s before she’s accused of high crimes and threatened with execution.
So, having brought up the threat of execution Rimi is under, should I dive into what my issue with this book was? Well… So, I did, on the whole, enjoy this book, but there was a lot that nagged at me throughout, all of which was ultimately tied to the book’s issues with tone. Rimi gets threatened a lot, primarily with execution, but also at one point with sexual assault, but the book doesn’t seem to want to take any of it entirely seriously. Rimi’s would-be assailant, for example, is then retained in the narrative as a key player who deserves some level of absolution to do with the poor ways in which he’s been treated throughout his life, and Rimi’s the one who enables that. Sure, she gets to make it clear she doesn’t like him, but she’s still the person who gets to set things up so he can maybe start getting over his issues. And then there’s the emperor, who very casually makes physical threats against both Rimi and other women within his harem, only for the narrative to go, “But, you see… he has trauma, from his childhood… also, isn’t it a little funny that he is angry enough over a dowry gift as to threaten to kill someone?” Another named male character gets similar treatment, albeit in a lower-key, and it all adds up to the fact that this is a story in which men get to behave badly and have it excused as a matter of their having trauma they need to work through, whereas women who behave badly are just catty, crazy bitches, never mind that a lot of the bad behavior which we see from women is quite clearly bound up in the fact that they are ultimately prisoners in a hyper-patriarchal system. (A male character, by the way, has the gall to wonder why Rimi, after being locked in a cell overnight for misbehavior, still seems down when she has her “freedom” back – uh, what? Rimi was locked up because she tried to leave the Inner Court, which she can’t leave because she’s a concubine, what on earth are you blathering about with “freedom”?!)
Ahem. Maybe it’ll be hard to believe, but I didn’t hate this opening volume, I just had a lot of problems with the underlying implications of its narrative choices, i.e. of prioritizing male angst over any sympathy toward its female cast outside of Rimi… and even poor Rimi is supposed to just get over things like the threat of murder and rape.
You know, writing all that out, I do find myself now wondering why I did end up pre-ordering the second volume after finishing this. I suppose it helps that its not isekai, has a female lead, and isn’t a villainess yarn (there’s nothing wrong, really, with the last one, but we have gotten ourselves into rather a glut on those). And as long as I read it on a more surface, easy-breezy level, this first volume was decently entertaining, Rimi and Shusei engaging enough as characters. I also happen to be gobbling light novels at an alarming rate at the moment, so that volume two is due in early July helped persuade me to opt to pre-order.
Surprisingly for a J-Novel Club release, this one is a bit rough on the technicals, with some very glaring typos. For example, at one point a character with the title “Virtuous Consort” was instead labeled the “Virtual Consort”. The transliteration reads fine on the whole, but the typos absolutely booted me out of the story whenever they occurred. (JNC put out a call for proofreaders for immediate hire the same week I read this, so I am optimistic this isn’t going to be a trend for them. Seven Seas had a similar hiccup along these lines last year, and they recovered from that very quickly.)
As I said, I have already pre-ordered the second volume, so I’ll at least be sticking with this for that long. Even with the caveats I have about it, I’m glad that JNC is continuing to expand what they have on offer, and I’m more generally glad that North American publishers have been offering more and more of light novels for audiences not comprised of young men and teen boys. Anyway, I’ve seen a lot of folks comparing this with The Apothecary Diaries, and while I don’t find the comparison terribly apt beyond the window-dressing, if you like that series, you may enjoy this as well. Having said that, if you’re considering between one and the other, I’d say to go with Apothecary Diaries instead.