2016’s The Apothecary Diaries: Volume 6 is the sixth installment in Natsu Hyuuga’s secondary-but-mundane-universe mystery Light Novel series. It was illustrated by Touko Shino. The 2022 Anglophone edition was translated by Kevin Steinbach.
When last we encountered senior royal Jinshi and apothecary/consulting detective Maomao, they had finally given into their mutual attraction and had engaged in hot torrid sex. Having done so, the two smartest people in the empire manage their new status as only incredibly brilliant people can: awkwardly.
Frankly, a bride’s flamboyant public suicide comes as a welcome distraction.
Inconveniently for the people involved in the carefully posed suicide, Maomao is observant and inquisitive. Thus, what should have been a straightforward if tragic affair is complicated because Maomao notices that the facts do not line up with the narrative. The results cast an unhappy spotlight on social inequities.
For purely logical reasons (and not because Jinshi and Maomao no longer know how to act around each other) Maomao heads back toward the capital before Jinshi. The unexpected consequence is that Maomao is unwillingly entangled in an attempted soft coup within her biological father’s1 clan.
Having disentangled herself from that bungled affair, Maomao arrives home to discover that consort Lishu, the emperor’s favorite consort, is in deep legal trouble. Accused of conducting an illicit affair, Lishu denies the charges. A damning letter suggests that Lishu is lying: the consequences for cheating on the emperor, even if only via torrid letters, would be dire indeed.
It falls to Maomao to discover the true source of the letters. If she cannot, the tale will end as it began, with suicide.
One does not often have to say this about secondary universe mysteries but I have grossly understated the importance to the plot of this book in particular (and the series as a whole) of sweet potatoes2. In a future volume, readers may be baffled why sweet potatoes are so important. Well, there are good reasons that I won’t discuss here, except to say it’s not often I have cause to cite Charles C. Mann’s 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.
The illustrations are competent enough, but they inflate the file size to the point that I cannot keep the novel on my Kobo, as it takes up about thirty ebooks worth of room.
As previously mentioned, this story is not set in our universe. However, there are some parallels between the empire in the story and China, also the West in the story and Europe circa 1800. Western powers are keenly interested in the empire, but not for the empire’s own good. Another parallel exists: somewhere to the West, an author wrote something very much like Romeo and Juliet, which is to eastern eyes terribly romantic.
Readers may be somewhat perplexed by seeing two people who are ever so bright being ever so terrible at admitting their mutual attraction. Part of it is that Maomao is a grumpy cynic; it can be hard to tell when she likes someone and when she would like them to eff off and die. Part of it is that the aristocracy does not prioritize frank discussion, preferring ambiguities that provide the speaker with plausible deniability. Part of it is that the geniuses involved are used to spinning complex scenarios on the basis of very little evidence. Why ask the apothecary how she feels when one can simply descend into a paranoid spiral of self-loathing and despair?
Indeed, aside from giving the author a chance to entertain the reader with an assortment of little mysteries leading up to the big mystery, the text reveals how effective the empire’s social mores are at ensuring insecurity, stress, and unhappiness, even for those at the top of the social pyramid.
Unsurprisingly for a series I am six volumes into, prose and characters are engaging. As well, I’m always intrigued to see how the seemingly disparate plot elements come together in the end. Readers might be concerned it won’t jell into a coherent whole, but the Apothecary Diaries always do. Of course, now the wait begins for the next volume.
1: Maomao’s father has only recently been acknowledged as such. He is not a person for whom Maomao feels affection. It would be the height of rudeness to point out that the apothecary and her biological father share some unusual cognitive characteristics.
2: I also could not cram in a reference to the supporting character Basen, who is astonishingly timid and self-effacing for a man who once punched a rampaging lion in the face and who thinks nothing of hurling himself off rooftops to assist the needy.