Natsu Hyuuga’s 2015 The Apothecary Diaries: Volume 4 is yet another volume in her secondary world mystery series. Volume 4’s illustrations are by Touko Shino. The 2021 English translation is by Kevin Steinbach.
Apothecary Maomao is painfully aware she has, thanks to the revelations of Volume 3, become someone who knows too much about high-ranking eunuch Jinshi. Thus, when a fellow servant enlists Maomao’s help in a mundane matter, Maomao welcomes the distraction. This is an error of judgment.
Although the servants who labour in the rear palace — the Imperial harem — were each sold to the palace, they serve for a limited number of years before being freed. Serving girl Xiaolan is painfully aware leaving the rear palace may be trading a secure position for abject poverty or worse. She appeals to Maomao for help. However, Maomao resists the obvious solution of introducing attractive Xiaolan to the madame of Verdigris House because, having been raised in Verdigris House herself, Maomao is aware that the lot of the average courtesan is an unhappy one.
Maomao and Xiaolan’s mutual acquaintance Shisui offers another alternative. Shisui has quietly carved out a niche for herself providing the ladies of the rear palace with her services as a masseuse and beauty expert. Were Maomao and Xiaolan to join her, they could make themselves too useful to the ladies to be ejected from the court once their contracts expire. That’s the plan … but matters work out very differently.
Despite her best efforts, Maomao cannot avoid being drawn into mysteries. The first involves a lady of the court who is not who she appears to be. The second is more personal, but it’s one that Maomao is not in a position to solve for her superiors: who kidnapped Maomao and why?
Nothing for it but for Jinshi to reluctantly solve the mystery himself.
As readers of the series already know and readers of this book discover almost immediately, the Big Secret is that Jinshi is not actually a eunuch. How he managed to side step the painstaking examination designed to ensure only actual eunuchs gain access to the imperial harem is a puzzle Maomao does not solve before the solution is handed to her. As it happens, Maomao is aware of the loophole Jinshi used. It just does not occur to her that it applies to him.
The novel’s Big Bad provides a pointed example of what a terrible leader can accomplish, provided only that nobody around them ever has the courage to say no. The mastermind in this volume has invested years pursuing a badly thought-out revenge plot, succeeding to the extent that they do because they have surrounded themselves with sycophants whose jobs would be imperiled if they ever pointed out the whole scheme adds up to a giant suicide pact.
This volume is less about mystery1—Maomao being a viewpoint character, the reader knows exactly who kidnapped her and why — than it is about court politics and consequences. A particularly dismal emperor has long since been replaced, but his bad decisions affect those still alive. Many of the oddities of the rear palace community are the fossil evidence of that emperor’s reign.
I prefer small mysteries to castle opera. That said, this volume moves along nicely, each character having been provided with plausible motivation for acting as they do. It’s in keeping with past volumes that nobody does terrible things for the LOLs. Every antagonist is either working towards a reasonable goal or is too badly damaged to make better decisions. Too bad for them that this isn’t a legal system that recognizes extenuating circumstances.
Once again, an entertaining volume that did not go where I was expecting it to go. I would sure like to know what will happen in Volume 5, the next volume. Which has been out for years in Japan. However the English translation will not be available until 2022-05-092. I don’t mind deferred gratification provided that it’s right now .
1: Maomao does at least get involved in solving a puzzle. Politics in the Empire of Li is a full contact sport with little room for mercy. It’s not enough to avoid breaking the law oneself. Simply being related to lawbreakers can be enough to warrant execution. Maomao is more tender-hearted than she would admit, thus at one point she is saddled with the task of finding some way to prevent a passel of kids from being hanged for having the wrong relatives.
2: I suppose I could learn Japanese, but that would probably take longer than the five months I will have to wait for the English translation.