2015’s The Apothecary Diaries: Volume 3 is the third volume1 in Natsu Hyuuga’s secondary-universe quasi-historical mystery series. Illustrations are by Touko Shino. The 2021 translation is by Kevin Steinbach.
Jinshu is a skilled administrator but he lacks the professional training that would allow him to notice a potentially ominous development in the imperial harem. For palace servant Maomao, the problem is more obvious.
Only a very few of the women recruited as potential concubines and wives of the emperor will ever catch his eye. It’s no surprise that women raised from childhood to secure lofty positions within the imperial household should therefore leap on any means to make themselves more attractive. Beautification fads sweep through the women’s palace on a frequent basis.
A trained apothecary in addition to her other skills, Maomao notices that many of the new perfumes at the centre of the latest fad share a quality undesirable in a harem: in large doses they cause miscarriages. This is not the first time a beauty treatment with potentially tragic side-effects has appeared in the harem. Is this an unintended effect? Or is something untoward happening? The evidence is equivocal.
There are many other matters to occupy Maomao. For example, there’s Maomao’s pornography sideline. There’s identity theft. An undocumented corpse is found hidden in a garden. An imperial maze poses problems. Two phenomenally beautify envoys arrive from a distant land. Oh yes, and there’s the small matter of the assassins intent on putting a bullet into Jinshu’s attractive head.
Perhaps most important: Maomao’s inadvertent and quite astonishing discovery that palace eunuch Jinshi is no eunuch at all.
I’m still struggling to come up with a good label for this series. It’s a mystery series set in an Asian Ruritania, with access to imported wheellock guns and steel plate printing presses. Have fun working out when that was.
Eugenics of an odd sort raises its head in this volume. There’s a test for potential emperors which is more likely to be passed by people with a specific inheritable deficiency [pbybhe-oyvaqarff] than people without it. This is presumably to ensure that people from a specific imperial lineage are more likely to occupy the throne. I suppose it works, but it seems a bit like selecting rulers because they have odd jawlines.
Given that prospective emperors aren’t tested for administrative abilities, there are informal mechanisms devised to keep unsuitable emperors from making decisions about matters about which they are poorly informed. These mechanisms work when emperors are both incompetent and uninterested in actually administering anything. How the imperium deals with the energetically incompetent is less clear. Poison? That’s a well-developed field in this nation.
As in the previous volume, this short novel invests a surprising amount of time exploring why some of the more disagreeable characters do what they do. A particular bad emperor, for example, had reasons driving his particular unsavoury proclivities, rather than simply being a Bad Person Who Did Bad Things Because Evil.
I found it amusing to read about the various problems facing Maomao. However, I found the volume less satisfying in that it was just one problem after another and lacked an overarching plot. Could it be that everything in this volume is foreshadowing for some crisis in volume four?
Not my favourite volume of this series. But it was still entertaining enough to keep me reading and also to spur me to get the next volume.
1: Something that may or may not be significant: the bookseller links I found for this book list this volume as the third of four. Since I see volumes five and six advertised for pre-order, I assume the series will not end at the fourth book. It would not surprise me, however, if it turned out that a number of long-running plot threads were tied up in the next volume.