The Apothecary Diaries: Volume 5 is the fifth volume in Natsu Hyuuga’s secondary universe historical fantasy, the Apothecary Diaries series of light novels. The illustrations are by Touko Shino; the 2022 English translation is by Kevin Steinbach.
Having survived entanglement in high-level imperial conspiracy, Maomao returns to the pleasure district to pursue her vocation as a Verdigris-House-affiliated apothecary. She is accompanied by young Chou‑u, the last survivor of the disgraced Shi clan. Maomao fosters Chou‑u just as she does everything else: grumpily.
Maomao may wish to be done with imperial schemes, but imperial schemes are not done with her.
The first hint of what is to come arrives in her food dish. Although run by a canny madam, Verdigris House is technically owned by an aging businessman whose lack of business acumen is matched only by his inability to understand how foolish he is. His latest deal saddles the brothel with an excess of locusts … which turn out to be grasshoppers.
Nobody living in the brothel likes locusts all that much but grasshoppers, though borderline edible, are despised. Maomao discoverss that this is more than a sign that the owner is incompetent (which he is); it’s a sign that grasshoppers are more available than locusts. A sudden increase in the ratio of grasshoppers to locusts is a harbinger of famine.
Having only just exterminated the disloyal Shi clan, the emperor does not need the challenge to his imperial legitimacy that a famine would bring.
Much as she would like to deny the fact, Maomao is connected to senior functionaries both by past service (having provided supposed eunuch Jinshi with apothecary and detective services) and by blood (while her mother was a courtesan, her father is the powerful, brilliant, and extremely eccentric military advisor Lakan). Worse yet, Jinshi and Lakan are well aware how useful Maomao’s skills can be. Thus, when Jinshi is dispatched on a road trip to address the various crises facing the empire, Maomao is drafted to accompany his party.
Among the expedition’s goals: find a wife for Jinshi, who far from being the safely neutered eunuch of no particular family that he claimed to be, is the entirely intact younger brother of none other than the emperor himself. Such a person must have a suitable wife. Mutual love is not a criterion that will be considered, only the prospective bride’s strategic value to the empire. The list of suitable women is quite short.
Despite her prodigious intellect, it takes Maomao a surprising long time to realize that she herself is on that list.
Authors using a fictionalized version of the past have the option of tweaking their model to better suit modern sensibilities: society might be more egalitarian than was true in the past; various abusive practices might be consigned to oblivion; magical birth control may exist. Examples are so common I need not list them.
Hyuuga rejects that option: her setting is just as unpleasant, oppressive, and dangerous as the ancient nations that provide her inspiration. It’s not only that political missteps are punished with mass extermination of the families involved; there’s a minor subplot early in the book in which a determined child convinces Verdigris House to employ her and her sister. It’s clear this is the best option open to these kids. No social welfare safety net here.
Although this book contains some amusing episodes — not least the scene in which ill-informed peasant farmers make the mistake of accepting Maomao’s challenge to see who drinks whom under the table — overall the book does not, as previous volumes have done, tie everything together in a tidy knot at the end of the book. In fact, the book is a bit disappointing, more a necessary step to get the series from A to B rather than a coherent volume on its own. That’s rather inconvenient for me, given a recent Tor essay.
Ah, well. Volume Six will be along soon enough. Perhaps the series will find its footing once more.