2018’s The Apothecary Diaries, Volume Seven is the seventh volume in Natsu Hyuuga’s secondary-universe light novel series. Illustrations1 are by Touko Shina. The 2023 English translation is by Kevin Steinbach.
In this volume, Maomao struggles with school work, international intrigue, and of course the glacial progress of the romance between her and attractive (but incapable of straight-forward declaration) Jinshu, revealed as a prince of Li a few volumes ago.
Maomao’s failure to pass the Court Ladies’ Service Exam presents an impediment to her superiors’ plans for the young apothecary. The issue cannot be her intelligence. She has demonstrated her keen mind time after time. The issue must therefore be lack of motivation to study, which leads Maomao to an unwelcome reunion with a former instructor: Madam, the grim old woman who runs the Verdigris House brothel that was Maomao’s childhood home.
Enforced academic achievement brings a new position — medical assistant in the rear palace, where the Emperor’s small army of concubines live — and new mysteries.
Among the women in the rear palace, foreign bride Aylin. Once an emissary from sometimes troublesome Shaoh, Aylin fled to Li, finding refuge in the rear palace. Maomao’s investigatory prowess makes Maomao a potentially useful catspaw for Aylin.
Shaoh has a curious government structure, the power of the monarch balanced by the power of the shrine maiden. Shine maidens serve until their first menses. The current shrine maiden is in her forties, a lengthy tenure that has allowed her to accrue considerable influence. Currently she is in Li, seeking assistance for a medical issue whose nature is unclear.
There are many reasons a person might never have periods. Said reasons may or may not be related to the shrine maiden’s current issues. Diagnosis is complicated when someone poisons the shrine maiden’s food. Now, not only does Maomao have to work out what is going on, she has to do so fast enough to prevent an innocent woman from hanging.
The Maomao/Jinshu romance makes infinitesimal progress, although at least Maomao bullies Jinshu into a frank, unambiguous declaration of intent. At this rate, it shouldn’t take more than thirty or forty more books for the pair to become awkwardly inarticulate bride and groom2.
Aside from the author’s desire to string the courtship out, the fault is in Li’s no-holds-barred political system, in which entire families can suffer for one person’s transgressions. In such circumstances, unambiguous statements limit plausible deniability. It follows that sensible people choose words open to a wide variety of interpretations. This is useful for sidestepping potentially fatal entanglements3 but does not aid clarity.
Shaoh has its own arrangement for provoking convoluted political struggles, different from but just as lethal as Li’s. It just goes to show just how ingenious humans creating governing systems that guarantee disfunction, stress, and anxiety4.
The setting of this manga is a bit short on places one might wish to live, but long on entertaining plot potential.
The key to enjoying these volumes, I find, is not to worry too much if the disparate plot elements don’t seem to have much to do with each other. They always come together into a coherent whole by the end of the novel. Also, watching the characters interact is always fun.
The Apothecary Diaries: Volume 7 is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), and here (Barnes & Noble). I did not find it at Book Depository. I also did not find it at Chapters-Indigo, which is odd because it is available from Kobo.
1: The illustrations for Diary are always lovely. They also increase the file size twenty-fold, which is why this series does not live on my e‑reader.
2: Why is a prince of a rigidly stratified society interested in an apothecary raised in a brothel? Because Maomao’s biological father is of lofty status, which means Maomao is as well. Maomao was happy with her former rank as red-light-district apothecary trainee and she did not welcome the revelation that she was due a higher status.
3: Habitually obfuscatory phasing does medical diagnosis no favours, as patients avoid explaining clearly what leads them to consult a doctor.
4: Not to mention that creative approaches to gender roles do not map one-to-one onto roles that are familiar to most modern readers. In particular, eunuchs are prominent characters in this setting.