Maomao has found herself working in the “rear palace” of the Imperial palace where the Emperor’s consorts and concubines live but not of her own accord; one day while gathering herbs she was kidnapped and sold to the palace as a common worker and here she remains stuck. She’s not looking to stand out or even excel in her work because people who do are noticed and given better, more permanent jobs and Maomao has every intention of getting out of the palace as fast as possible (plus, a part of her wages go to her kidnappers and she certainly doesn’t want to fill their pockets).
But Maomao does excel in one area, in the use of medicinal herbs and compounds to soothe or poison, and when she realizes why some of the imperial consorts are falling ill she can’t help but leave a note warning them of the dangers in their (most likely lead-based) face paint. Too bad for her, someone else in the palace puts two and two together and, for her good deed, Maomao has moved up in the rear palace is now serving as a taste-tester to one of the consorts themselves. It’s a good thing that, through her own medicinal experiments, she’s built up an immunity to poisons over the years!
I’ve already read and enjoyed the first two volumes in the manga adaptation of this series and I was thrilled to find that this first novel goes a bit beyond those two books, so I imagine that the third, or possibly fourth, manga volume will wrap up the material in this volume. I’m still greatly enjoying Maomao’s inner sarcasm and exasperation at her situation and think that the manga has been a great adaptation of the story so far; for new readers I would recommend that they pick up whichever format they prefer, at this point I don’t have a preference but will keep reading both versions (since the novel is covering the story faster but the manga has very cute art to accompany it).
There were two aspects to this novel that struck me as rather different from the manga adaptation in interesting ways, the first of which was getting to spend some time in the head of Jinshi, the head eunuch in the rear palace and frequent foil to Maomao, instead of seeing him strictly through Maomao’s eyes. In the manga, where we only see him from Maomao’s viewpoint, he does come off as someone who acts overly cheerful to distract from a more devious, plotting side to himself, but overall he seems to have it all together. In the novel, Jinshi does still have everything together but we also get to see just how bone tired he is all the time and that maintaining this persona is more work than Maomao thinks. In fact, it was easy to see why Jinshi was interested in Maomao in the manga (the guy who gets everything meets the one woman immune to his charms trope) but here in the novel it’s even clearer that being with someone biting and sarcastic is a relief for him; if Jinshi were to say something rude or flippant in reply to Maomao’s barbs she wouldn’t be horrified by the slip in his facade, unlike everyone else in the palace.
The second difference between the two versions surprised me a little more; in the manga Maomao can never quite rule out the idea that she wasn’t kidnapped as much as she was sold to the palace by her father as labor, not only does she say that in her dialogue but some of the art also reflects that possibility. However, in the novel Maomao never doubts for a minute that it was a kidnapping by a third, unrelated party and once we learn a bit of her father’s backstory it’s immediately clear why he would have never done that to Maomao. Not only that but when Maomao goes home for a visit we can see why exactly she hasn’t been protesting her general work in the palace (aside from trying to do a just ordinary enough job at it to not get her contract extended); even with her apothecary skills Maomao’s most likely going to end up working in a brothel one day and she’s not keen on the idea! That realization isn’t a shock to the reader but it was nice to see Maomao’s reasonings, which sometimes come off as a bit obscured due to her quiet nature, be laid out so clearly by Natsu Hyuuga.
On a final note, for the second volume of the manga I remarked that it was easy to see how merely removing Maomao’s freckles would make her “beautiful” as she was drawn so cutely to start with! Here the art is almost the opposite, it’s very easy to see how just adding freckles would make Maomao truly look like a rather plain, boring girl and now I find myself wishing we had gotten some illustrations of her in her fancy outfits just to see how Touko Shino would have balanced that out. In general, the illustrations here are a little lacking at times and one in particular stood out to me: when Maomao is deducing that one of the consorts has a deadly seafood allergy she pulls up her sleeve, revealing her rash to the rest of the room (light novel on the left, manga on the right):
The rash is barely even visible in the light novel illustration! Even if I hadn’t already seen the manga’s depiction of that scene I think I would have been confused about where this “rash” was supposed to be and, even other than that, I do generally prefer Nekokurage’s cuter, more expressive manga art a bit more than Shino’s illustrations here.
While this volume ends in a nicely satisfactory place (I was unsurprised to learn it was originally a one-shot) I am eagerly awaiting more of The Apothecary Diaries; there will probably be a new consort in the palace soon and this volume more or less confirms some suspicions I had about Jinshi while reading the manga. This is a series where I can see myself falling off of it eventually if the slice of life nature becomes too routine but I’m hoping there’s enough intrigue in the palace to keep me entertained and Maomao exasperated for time to come.