The Apothecary Diaries, Vol. 5

y Natsu Hyuuga and Touko Shino. Released in Japan as “Kusuriya no Hitorigoto” by Hero Bunko. Released in North America by J-Novel Club. Translated by Kevin Steinbach.

For the most part, this is something of a transitional volume of The Apothecary Diaries, at least until the end. While Maomao is no longer at the palace, she’s still very much involved in everyday life, and now she has a little boy to look after (who proves to be quite an artist). There are several interlinking plots, one of which is likely to stick around – there’s a potential famine on the way, which was figured out by the fact that there are more grasshoppers than locusts around, something I absolutely did not know, so kudos there. Maomao even finds time to attend the theater, where we see a magic act that looks pretty impressive, but which is fairly easily explained by a combination of tricks and drugging the audience. The second half of the book, though, is more interesting, as Maomao is taken by Jinshi to a banquet in the western part of the country, and all hell breaks loose, both figuratively and literally.

Let’s leave Maomao and Jinshi for later and talk about the other parts of this book. I really enjoyed seeing Maomao back in her hometown and fitting in very well… she even takes on an apprentice, who has a very good memory, something required in an apothecary. The apprentice will no doubt be necessary soon, as there’s no way Maomao stays here long. Indeed, the second half of the book is a big field trip, first where she goes to the quack doctor’s hometown and meets his family (who she refuses to name, continuing this book’s longest running gag). I must admit Maomao challenging a bunch of assholes to a drinking contest may be the best part of the book, especially when she worries she’ll lose not by getting too drunk but by having to pee. I also really liked her relationship with Lishu, who is a trembling bird of a woman who turns out to be bullied at home and at the palace. That said, maybe she’s found a guy… which is more than can be said for Maomao.

The final scene should technically be romantic, but is instead deeply uncomfortable to me. I have never seen someone so blatantly determined not to fall in love as Maomao is in this series. The Emperor is pushing Jinshi to get married, and things are not going well, mostly as Jinshi only wants Maomao. For once there isn’t really a class or status problem here – *if* Maomao were to admit to her birth parentage, which she really really does not want to do. She desperately wants Jinshi to marry anyone else mostly to try to get rid of the undeniable tension between them. The final scene features Jinshi, in a bit of a rage at Maomao’s attempts to brush him off, literally almost choke her to death, and it’s horrifying. As is Maomao’s response to this, which amounts to “gotta do this, I guess”. It’s a good thing that this series is a large number of volumes, as if Jinshi and Maomao got together now as they both are, bad things would happen.

This remains one of the best light novel series out there, an absolutely riveting read. If you’re reading it for the romance, though, I’m so sorry. Also, I forgot to mention the lion. There is a lion.

The Apothecary Diaries, Vol. 4

By Natsu Hyuuga and Touko Shino. Released in Japan as “Kusuriya no Hitorigoto” by Hero Bunko. Released in North America by J-Novel Club. Translated by Kevin Steinbach.

Ah, nothing like another review where I can’t talk about half of what I want to because it would spoil. I know that half the time my reviews spoil the entire book anyway, but there are very good plot twists here, and I don’t really want to give them away. As such, I will simply say that I am looking back on some comments I made in my review of the third volume and laughing hollowly. Other than that, well, this particular volume is taking care to wrap up all the plotlines that have been dangling since it began. Jinshi’s identity and why he’s hiding it, Maomao’s friendship with Xiaolan and Shisui, and the long-standing question of who will be Empress are all dealt with here, and we even get a few action scenes towards the end and some chilling torture… well, it would be chilling were it not Maomao, who does have the ability to be terrified, but not when the danger is this pathetic.

After the events of the last book Maomao has been studiously avoiding Jinshi and trying not to think about what she found when she accidentally groped him. She’s back with Gyokuyou, who is quite pregnant. That said, the pregnancy may be an issue, as all signs are that the baby wants to come out the wrong way around. This means they need an expert, which brings Maomao’s adopted father to the rear palace. Elsewhere, Maomao may have found her new calling in body hair removal, and Maomao the kitten is busy getting up to no good. However, things take a far more serious turn in the second half of the book when Maomao attempts to sleuth on her own about various lingering mysteries from the previous books… and ends up kidnapped! Can she manage to get back to the rear palace, and if she does will she get punished anyway? And what’s with our favorite bug-loving maid?

As of this review, there are 11 volumes of The Apothecary Diaries out in Japan, so the series isn’t ending. But this certainly feels like a good stopping place. By the end of the book most of the subplots have been resolved, Jinshi has been forced to stop hiding, and, as Maomao herself puts it, with Gyokuyou now being Empress Maomao is out of a job. The romance is not really resolved, but then it’s hard to imagine how it COULD resolve – leaving aside status issues, which can easily be taken care of if Maomao acknowledges who her birth father is, there’s the fact that Maomao is seemingly apathetic about it. I think she has repressed desire for Jinshi, no question, but I think the idea of being a consort, bride, wife, whatever you call it galls her. No doubt it galls the reader too, who would much rather watch Mao wander around playing Murder, She Wrote.

So the question now is, what needs to happen to get Maomao back to the rear palace, because I’m pretty sure the rest of the series is not going to involve her sitting in her apothecary shop in the pleasure district. Can’t wait to find out, because this is one of the best written light novels coming out right now.

The Apothecary Diaries, Vol. 3

By Natsu Hyuuga and Touko Shino. Released in Japan as “Kusuriya no Hitorigoto” by Hero Bunko. Released in North America by J-Novel Club. Translated by Kevin Steinbach.

One of the enjoyable things about the Apothecary Diaries is that, while it will always bee about the relationship between Maomao and Jinshi to a degree, if you’re completely uninterested in that sort of thing there’s still a whole lot to get out of every volume. There are the mysteries, of course, as everyone and their brother wants Maomao to apply her cunning and figure out Who’s Killin’ Who. There is Maomao herself, who has an idea of what social niceties and graces are and has decided to tell them “no thank you”. And there’s an increasingly fun cast, including the amusingly carefree Xiaolan, who spends most of the novel learning to read – and unlike what most books of this sort would do, she proves to be pretty good at it once given proper education. And then there’s Shisui, who is my new Best Girl, and is basically to bugs what Maomao is to poisons. It’s tough to be so eccentric that Maomao is mistaken for you, but this girl can pull it off.

When Maomao is not busy snarking at Jinshi or “the quack doctor”, she is helping Jinshi to try to educate the people min the rear palace, discovers a cat that is quickly named after her (sort of), deals with a caravan that is selling all the ladies fragrant perfumes… some of which are potentially dangerous; trying to solve a recent disappearance that turns into a not-so-recent murder; figures out how a sheltered young woman snuck past her guards and got pregnant; discovers that the issues surrounding Consort Lihua, which is what started this series off, have not vanished; and ends up going on a hunting trip with a disguised Jinshi, which ends up turning far more dangerous than either of them had anticipated.

As I said last time, the series rewards close reading, and having prior volumes on hand. There are several pregnancies in this book, and several chapters dealing with people who are trying their hardest to make sure that those pregnancies are unsuccessful… or are they? It *could* just all be a coincidence. On the lighter side, for those who ARE reading the book for the relationship between Maomao and Jinshi, the last quarter of the book is pure gold. Somethign we had long suspected is finally straight up admitted, and you will never be able to see the words “decently sized amphibian” again without laughing. Maomao herself seems more determined than ever to avoid going anywhere near this – she’s very aware of how Jinshi feels, what it would mean for her future, and how she really does NOT want to deal with it. Even if she does go gaga when he gives her the right present.

So yes, this remains essential reading provided you don’t mind that it’s got the Emperor and his many consorts, or that the heroine (not one of the consorts) can kill a man with her sharp tongue at 500 yards.)