The Apothecary Diaries, Vol. 1
by Natsu Hyuuga
CW: Sex work, kidnapping, child death, self-harm
Please check the content warnings before continuing as several of them are unavoidable when discussing the setup!
This manga is originally based on a series of Japanese light novels. They’ve been translated to English and even just reading the sample, it seems that the beginning of the manga follows the text closely.
Maomao was kidnapped from her job as an herbalist/apothecary in a red light district and is now forced to work as a maid in the inner court of the imperial palace. Because of her previous work, she’s also one of the few maids who can read and write. After saving the lives of the emperor’s heirs and his two favorite concubines, Maomao’s education, as well as her knowledge of poisons, harmful materials, etc. garners the attention of the Jinshi, a mysterious eunuch who seems to have close ties to the emperor. Maomao gets a promotion, serving as the food tester for one of the concubines.
The first volume is split into four chapters with each having its own little mystery or quest. It reminded me of a cozy mystery TV show, where most of the plot is self-contained, while personal relationships continue to deepen and develop. It also tapped into why I like things like anthologies because I can dip in and out without much of a time (or brain commitment). Maomao is grumpy, though she loves to nerd out on plants; she’s a compelling main character and I’m eager to know more about her life as an herbalist before coming to the inner court. I loved the detailed art style and also watching Maomao build this little community. For example, the concubines and fellow ladies-in-waiting conspire to make sure Maomao’s kidnappers receive little to no money, while paying her secretly under the table. She’s the star here and I want more of her smart deductions, mad scientist experimentations with herbs, and exasperated looks she gives Jinshi’s suspicious and nosey presence.
I do want to touch on the presence of eunuchs as I think there is language that could be taken as transphobic. A lot of emphasis is placed on a man’s identity being linked to his genitalia and losing that causes him to become more soft and feminine. No men, aside from the emperor, are allowed within the inner court unless they are eunuchs, given that the inner court is where all of the concubines live. However, I do want to be cognizant that the setting is based on imperial China and what may have been the reality of how people viewed eunuchs.
I initially picked this one up because of a possible romance between Maomao and Jinshi, but I honestly don’t even care about that now. The episodic mysteries and community of women have superseded that. I’ll certainly continue this series. As a bonus, an anime adaptation premiered in October!
After breaking a “curse” on the imperial heirs, a palace servant with training in herbal medicine is promoted up the ranks to food taster…and right into the thick of palace intrigue in this lushly illustrated period mystery series!
Maomao, a young woman trained in the art of herbal medicine, is forced to work as a lowly servant in the inner palace. Though she yearns for life outside its perfumed halls, she isn’t long for a life of drudgery! Using her wits to break a “curse” afflicting the imperial heirs, Maomao attracts the attentions of the handsome eunuch Jinshi and is promoted to attendant food taster. But Jinshi has other plans for the erstwhile apothecary, and soon Maomao is back to brewing potions and…solving mysteries?!
Historical: Other, Manga, Mystery/Thriller
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