The Apothecary Diaries, Volume One is the first volume in Natsu Hyuuga’s episodic historical mystery series of light novels. The illustrator is Nekokurage. The 2020 English edition was translated by Kevin Steinbach.
Kidnapped by greedy villagers, Maomao was sold to the hougong, the rear palace. This is a sprawling residence for the emperor’s many wives and consorts, as well as for the eunuchs and servants who tend to them. Steadfastly unsentimental and practical, Maomao set out to keep a low profile until her term of service was up and she could return home. (Home is a red-light district where she lived with her doting apothecary stepfather.)
Maomao would like out for several reasons. She’s homesick, yes, but she’s also afraid for her life. The hougong is a hotbed of vicious rivalry. To be noticed by the powerful is to become a target for jealous and quite possibly homicidal hougong folk. Better to be a mere servant than a figure of interest.
Maomao is too clever by half and becomes a figure of interest.
Maomao overhears a discussion concerning the health of Ladies Gyokuyou and Lihua and their respective babies. Both mothers and their children suffer from a mysterious malady. To lose one or both Imperial offspring would be disastrous; disaster, however, seems inevitable. The hougong physician (a eunuch) is an amiable quack — talented doctors being unwilling to be castrated — and seems unlikely to effect a cure.
Maomao has studied under her stepfather and is an apothecary of some skill herself. She has even improved on his methods after dedicated experimentation. Consequently, she knows more about drugs and poisons than the physician does, which means she can make an educated guess as to what’s troubling the ladies. They are using lead-based face powder.
Determined to avoid calling attention to herself, Maomao leaves an anonymous note warning the ladies about the face powder.
Lady Gyokuyou heeds the warning. She and her daughter recover. Lady Lihua does not. She remains ill and her son dies. The affair intrigues high-ranked eunuch Jinshi, who sets out to discover who left the note. Jinshi soon figures out which servant has been concealing both literacy and apothecary skills.
As Maomao suspected, competence becomes its own punishment. She’s appointed as Lady Gyokuyou’s designated food taster. Maomao’s research has given her an informed palate and a prodigious tolerance for poisons. Over the long run, this probably won’t be enough to save her.
Worse yet, Maomao is thrown into the merciless intrigues of the hougong. If not necessarily a target — she is but a servant! — she could be collateral damage. As well, being useful to Jinshi is a condition that carries with it significant risk.
Possibly I should draw parallels with other court intrigue stories (both written works and recent TV mini-series) but aside from Kingdomand Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung(both Korean, the first somewhat more downbeat than the book under review) I am not well versed in this genre. Feel free to chime in with the works I should have cited!
I tried to find out more about the author of this series, Natsu Hyuuga, but had little success. The author shares a name with a character from the popular Narutomanga, so disentangling real leads from red herrings was beyond me.
This book is a historical, but it’s one that is doesn’t tell readers much about precisely when or where it is set. The names make a case for Japan, but where in Japan or exactly when this is happening is unclear.
Maomao tends to eschew direct statements in favour of carefully phrased, oblique references. She wants to convey information while avoiding commitment and preserving plausible deniability. In works like Dune, this sort of indirect suggestion invariable conveys the intended point. In Diaries, sometimesMaomao’s circuitous phrasing gets her point across. Sometimes the message delivered is 180 degrees off the one she intended, such as the time she obliquely asks to be kept on, only to have her employer sadly conclude she wants to leave. There may be a lesson here. Or maybe not. The informed reader will understand what I mean.
Maomao dislikes the eunuch Jinshi, the architect of her rise in prominence. It’s not clear exactly why she feels this way. She doesn’t care for eunuchs1, but her spite towards Jinshi is more pronounced and not really justified by anything he actually does. Perhaps it is just that Maomao takes a rather pessimistic and disapproving view of almost everything and everyone save for her stepfather. Fate has given her a weak hand but she can at least complain (quietly; loud complaints would probably have lethal consequences.).
For his part, Jinshi appears to like Maomao, is disappointed when it seems she will leave the palace, and would be genuinely sad if the needs of the state ever required him to pen Maomao’s death warrant. Her immunity to his previously infallible charms may be part of this, but her undeniable skills at pharmacy and detection are major reasons that she is so valuable. It’s just so handy to have a minion who is observant, smart, skilled, and very difficult to poison.
One might expect a novel about someone who was kidnapped and sold into a nest of vipers to be somewhat downbeat. It’s not. Maomao is an amusing character; the intrigues into which she is drawn are fascinating. It’s one “what will happen now?” moment after another.
The Apothecary Diaries, Volume One is available from J‑Novel Club, as well as here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo). I did not find it at Book Depository.
1: Maomao also dislikes situational lesbians, of which there are a number in the hougong. It may be that being raised near a brothel and expecting that she might be coerced into working there has affected her views. Or it may be that the fact that there are rapists who target the women of the red-light district has convinced Maomao that sex in general is unpleasant. OR it may be that physical affection is of less interest to her than alcohol, poisons, and chocolate2.
2: The minor role chocolate plays in the book does mean that it is set some time after the beginning of the Columbian Exchange.