Tuesday, May 31, 2022


 As this 10th edition of the Merry Month of Manga comes to an end, it's time to cover one last oversight.  This has been one of my favorites for the last two years.  If not for the fact that its first volume came out so late in the year, it absolutely would have been in my 2020 Holiday Reviews.  Now it's time to finally give it its due.

THE APOTHECARY DIARIES (Kusuriya no Hitorigoto), based on the light novel series by Natsu Hyuga and character designs by Touko Shino, with story by Itsuki Nanao and art by Nekokurage.  First published in 2017 and first published in North America in 2020.


Maomao didn't ask to be kidnapped and sold to the imperial palace as a servant, but it happened anyway.  She hoped to just work off her two-year contract and return to her father's apothecary in the pleasure district.  Unfortunately her curious nature and knowledge of herbs and medicine lead to her getting elevated to food taster for one of the imperial consorts.  Now when she's not fending off the attention of the handsome court eunuch Jinshi, she's dealing with all sorts of potentially deadly palace intrigue.


The Apothecary Diaries feels like an oasis in a desert of derivative isekai light novels and their lackluster manga adaptations.  It's got an novel premise, an interesting cast of characters, an exotic setting, and a quirky yet relatable heroine at the forefront.

You gotta love Maomao.  She's smart, snarky, a little morbid (thanks to her obsession with poisons and willingness to test them on herself), socially awkward, and possesses a degree of intellectual curiosity that betrays her attempts to hold herself aloof from others, but never in a way that feels out of place with its Chinese setting or time period (as vague as that might be).  In short, she's great.  If anything, her pricklier and weirder qualities make her all the more charming.  They certainly seem to work for Jinshi, who seems to be fascinated (if not downright enchanted) at the notion of a woman who stares at him like a bug instead of a heavenly being.  As fun as it is to watch Maomao interact with all the various maids, consorts, and officials of the harem, it doesn't match the quasi-romantic give and take between those two.

While there is plenty of character drama to be found, The Apothecary Diaries is at its heart a mystery series.  Sometimes Maomao is assigned to investigate some mysterious death or illness and sometimes she simply stumbles upon it, but it's her endless curiosity that drives her forward (and sometimes gets her in trouble).  The solutions are based just as much in sensible science as they are in the usual petty intrigues of a royal harem, but like any good mystery the fun is watching Maomao reach those conclusions.  When combined with the large and lively cast, you get a truly engaging story.


This is one of the rare times when a manga adaptation of a light novel improves upon the art.  Touko Shino's original illustrations are a little more refined than the manga art, but Nekokurage brings a little flourish and life to this story.  Her take on the characters is a little more rounded and cute, but more importantly it is much more energetic.  This helps to sell both the moments of comedy and high drama.  Meanwhile, she doesn't neglect to capture the beauty of the inner court, be it the fancy buildings or elaborate costumes of the consorts.  

Also, I love the chibi art she does for her author's notes, something which feels like a lost art these days.


This is also one of the few times I've read the original light novel (which is currently being released by J-Novel Club).  The manga is much more slow-paced than the light novels, but the plot is easier to follow and the dialogue more engaging.  I suspect the difference may come down not just to Hyuga's original text but also the translators.  Kevin Steinbach's translation of the light novels is perfectly readable, but at times I felt like it needed a bit of a second pass for clarity.  There is no such problem with Julie Goniwich's translation for the manga.  I only wish that the manga would get released faster so it could begin to catch up to the light novels!


If you've been craving a manga that somehow manages to combine the ancient Chinese splendor and large cast of Saiunkoku with the drama of something like Apothecarius Argentum or Snow White With the Red Hair, then you absolutely should be reading The Apothecary Diaries.  It's fun, it's original, and it's easily the best manga Square Enix currently has to offer.

This series is published by Square Enix Books.  It is ongoing in Japan with 9 volumes currently available.  4 volumes have been released and are currently in print.

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