Who knew Square Enix published manga?
More importantly, why didn’t anyone tell me?! I had to find out for myself! And yet, it was a good discovery this passing February that one of my favorite video game companies (I remember when they were separate; Enix’ Star Ocean II anyone?) was present, or has been present, in an ever growing industry.
Better still was finding an excellent title right off the bat in ‘The Apothecary Diaries’. Originally a web novel (2011) by Natsu Hyuuga that was brought to print by Shufunotomo in 2012 under their Ray Books label, 2014 saw the story go to light novel format, and then in 2017 Square Enix published the manga. Volumes one, and two came state side last December 2020, and February this year. Credits on the manga are, Itsuki Nanao (compiled by), character designs by Touco Shino, and illustrations by Nekokurage,
Set in a fictitious far eastern empire seemingly based on Ancient China, the story opens with the day in, day out drudgery of Maomao, an ‘inner court’ maidservant at a palace, who, was sold into such indentured servitude after slavers kidnapped her while she was out picking herbs. Trying to keep her head down, and avoid the intrigues of the court, its consorts, concubines, and eunuchs, Maomao conceals her literacy, and maintains a patch of painted on freckles to make herself appear less attractive in contrast to the fair skinned courtiers around her.
In spite of these efforts, Maomao finds herself involved, first as an observer on the sidelines of a drama over a ‘Curse’ that has afflicted two of the Emperor’s favored consorts, Lihua, and Gyokuyo, as well as their infant children. Lihua blames Gyokuyo for bringing the curse upon her and her son in attempt to gain power, while Gyokuyo defends herself, stating that she and her daughter suffer from the curse as well.
Having worked as an apothecary in the pleasure district before her abduction, Maomao is able to ascertain from the described symptoms of the curse that the face powder both consorts are using is in fact poisonous, being of the same variety used by the courtesans at the brothels back in her hometown. Thinking fast, she gathers rhododendron branches, tears off several shreds of her garment, and writes a warning to both consorts to stop wearing the face powder on the shreds of cloth, then ties them to the branches, and leaves them on each of the consort’s respective windows, hopefully to be found, but to maintain her anonymity.
When word comes less than a month after that consort Lihua’s son has died, Lihua herself now bed ridden and reclusive, Maomao concludes that her warnings weren’t heeded. Later, she’s called to gather with the rest of the maidservants before a femininely beautiful eunuch named Jinshi, who wordlessly holds up a letter before them all that reads “You with the freckles: Remain here.”, then verbally dismisses everyone.
Waiting behind, it dawns on Maomao too late that she’s been singled out. The rest of the maidservants being illiterate, only she could have read the letter. By staying behind, Maomao realizes she has tipped her hand, revealing her education. Jinshi takes Maomao before consort Gyokuyo, and her infant daughter Xiaoling, both in very fine health!
Jinshi reveals to Gyokuyo the shred of cloth Maomao had written her warning on, and then presents Maomao. The truth comes out. Gyokuyo heeded the warning, and stopped using the powder, then Jinshi helped her suss out who had sent the warning in the first place. Now a known, appreciated commodity, Maomao finds herself promoted to the consort’s lady-in-waiting, and food tester, as well as given access to the medical supplies of the palace. From there, Maomao is mired in the intrigues of the court.
The Apothecary Diaries is a mystery series on a whole, Maomao using her knowledge and deductive skills to solve various situations, but it also draws on romance, and political intrigue to keep the reader’s attention glued. Characters are not always what they seem as well, especially in the case of Jinshi, who may not even be a eunuch, asking Maomao at one point to concoct an aphrodisiac for him, and often flirting (sometimes rather aggressively) with Maomao.
Whether Jinshi’s interest is sincere hasn’t yet been revealed within the first two volumes presently out, but the back-and-forths between him and Maomao are some of the best, most entertaining dialogues. They are cat and mouse, but it is sometimes hard to tell who is the cat in the relationship. Maomao herself is an unusual heroine; morbid, intellectually formidable, darkly self interested, and self serving, but there appears to be a heart beneath it all.
The art is strong. Nekokurage’s illustrations are excellent, if not shojo elegant, but given the amount of busty consorts and exposed cleavage on display, the whole presentation seems a bit shonen as well. Regardless, The Apothecary Diaries looks as great as it reads!
Volume 3, and volume 4 of the manga are due in September, and November this year so there’s plenty of time to snag the current volumes and get acquainted with Maomao, Jinshi, and all the mystery before the next installments hit the shelves.
Take two, it’s good medicine, just don’t call me in the morning!