Raven of the Inner Palace, Vol. 3

By Kouko Shirakawa and Ayuko. Released in Japan as “Kōkyū no Karasu” by Shueisha Orange Bunko. Released in North America by Airship. Translated by Amelia Mason.

This volume delves deeper into why everyone insists that the Raven Consort always be alone. Throughout the book we see Jusetsu just generally being nice to people and helping them with their personal trauma. She’s a good egg. And she’s also gaining another bodyguard here, even though he may be a spy (or a double agent… it’s that kind of book). She might even get in more ladies-in-waiting, though I think Jiujiu might have something to say about that. She’s growing closer to the emperor, though I don’t think she really realizes what those feelings are yet. (It doesn’t help that she has to have jealousy explained to her, and doesn’t get it.) That said, the end of the book is worrying. Having good friends is fine, especially as the emperor is going to work on saving Jusetsu. But the way some people are reacting to her actions is beginning to look a bit like worship. And, as we see in this book, new gods are not always a good thing.

As with the previous books in this series, there are four chapters, each of which has a self-contained “mystery” but each also adds to the larger narrative. A lady-in-waiting is being haunted by a ghost, but the ghost is just standing there and not doing anything. An ancient ghost wanders the inner palace lamenting… but if the ghost is so ancient, why has it only started appearing this last week? A scholar new to the palace has a ghostly arm pulling on his sleeve, trying to stop him from… something. And, as is traditional with this series, the book ends with one of the consorts near death, this time because of a cursed item that was actually meant to kill Jusetsu. Throughout all this, Jusetsu takes care of the problem while struggling to come to terms with her need for people around her.

The best part of the book is its emphasis on the fact that people have more than one side to them, and that just because you had a bad time because of something that someone else did does not mean they meant you to have a bad time. The lady-in-waiting;s ghost was upset with her for fleeing while they were left to die… but they also told her to flee out of love. This also allows Jusetsu to come to terms with her mother’s own sacrificial actions, which were meant to save her even as they also made her suffer. As for the horror part of the book, there’s less of it this time around. It was a bit eerie how one of the supporting characters was revealed to not really exist and just smiled and said “Yup, bye”. And the resolution of the third chapter was basically “well, now I know why I have a ghost, but I can’t stop what I’m here for, so welp”, which is realistic but unsatisfying.

The book overall remains an excellent read for fans of “emperor’s palace” books and dark mysteries.

Raven of the Inner Palace, Vol. 2

By Kouko Shirakawa and Ayuko. Released in Japan as “Kōkyū no Karasu” by Shueisha Orange Bunko. Released in North America by Airship. Translated by Amelia Mason.

I mentioned last time that this was a mystery series, and that’s still true here. The book is set up so that we have the chapter itself, which is a self-contained “a ghost is causing problems” thing for Jusetsu to deal with, but each chapter also adds to the overall narrative of Jusetsu and the Emperor getting closer to each other despite the entire world seeming to throw “do not do this” signs at them. But this second volume also amps up another part of this series, which is the horror. There is some deeply creepy shit going on here, and honestly the chapter that began with a court maid being found dead with her throat ripped out was on the milder end of the spectrum. These ghosts have issues, and just because Jusetsu is here to try to get them to the afterlife doesn’t mean she’s always going to succeed. Especially since it seems she has a distaff counterpart, the owl to her raven. And he’s trying to kill her.

The first story here has Jusetsu meet a young eunuch who is tormented by a ghost that only he can see, one that keeps apologizing in the direction of the concubine of that quarters. Who is the ghost and what does it have to do with gorgeous blue feathers? In the second story (and the most horrific of the lot), an old woman begs Jusetsu to try to put to rest the spirit of a young concubine who drowned herself, but the main issue is that some people, even when grieving, have to make it all about them. The third story has a mask with holes in the eyes which, when put on, shows a ghost who seems to be very interested in a specific kind of lute playing. And the final story has Jusetsu get involved with a concubine who has been somewhat off the rails since her brother died, and who will accept any help in order to get her brother back.

It’s very odd seeing the inner narrative push back against what we, as a reader, want. Jusetsu is a kind and lonely young girl who is starting to really come out of her shell now that she’s surrounded by people. She’s got a cute servant girl, a nice bodyguard, an older woman to give (wordless, her tongue was cut out) advice, and of course the Emperor dropping by all the time, seemingly infatuated with her. This is definitely good in an emotional way. But man, the backstory and the actions of others within the narrative have it being painted as this massive disaster, and honestly you can’t help but since every time she shows empathy to someone new and yet another person reminds her “the raven consort but always be alone”. And then there’s the end of the boo, which gives her her very own nemesis, who is going to murder her for her own good. Well, for the raven’s own good. Jusetsu is just unfortunate baggage.

As you can imagine, these are very good books. If you like your fantasy dark and don’t mind some creepy ghosts, definitely get this.

Raven of the Inner Palace, Vol. 1

By Kouko Shirakawa and Ayuko. Released in Japan as “Kōkyū no Karasu” by Shueisha Orange Bunko. Released in North America by Airship. Translated by Amelia Mason.

Sometimes people just want variations on a theme. Looks at why isekai is so popular, despite the fact that everyone you talk to seemingly hates it. Heck, look at Villainess novels, where I feel like Holt from Brooklyn Nine-Nine. “I’ve read this story before.” “AND YOU’LL READ IT AGAIN!” And now we have the mini-genre of “intrigue in the inner court palace of the Emperor and his harem”, where I’ve already got The Apothecary Diaries (mystery series with a side of toxic romance), Culinary Chronicles of the Court Flower (foodie shoujo with doomed romance very much not as the side), and Though I Am An Inept Villainess (bodyswap AND villainess AND romance AND intrigue). And now we have Raven of the Inner Palace, which has mystery, and also romance, but most importantly it has ghosts. So many ghosts, they’re honestly choking the Inner Palace. Fortunately, we have a young woman who can help them move on. Somewhat less fortunately, she’s stuck there for the rest of her life, because she is Special ™.

Jusetsu is the Raven Consort, who, unlike the other Consorts in the Inner Palace, does not spend the nights “having conversations” with the Emperor. Instead, she helps others in the court to find lost items, or to remove a curse with her mystical powers. Now the Emperor, who is relatively new to power after overthrowing the Dowager Queen (who is ludicrously evil in an almost laughable way, despite the fact that we never see her) is here to see Jusetsu to see if she can identify who is the owner of a jade earring dropped on the ground. From here, and despite Jusetsu being standoffish and prickly and the Emperor seemingly being stoic, the two grow closer, and each learns the backstory of the other.

As with a lot of mystery series, I don’t want to give the game away by talking about the plot too much. I do like Jusetsu, who different enough from the other “court intrigue” heroines to be her own person. She turns out to be socially awkward as hell, partly from her tragic past, but mostly, it’s inferred, from the training she got to be the next Raven Consot, which consisted of emphasizing that she should have a minimum of human contacts. That goes out the window in the first book. Not only is the Emperor clearly starting to fall for her (she doesn’t notice) and she gains a court lady and a second servant. This is clearly a good thing for her character development, but I suspect a lot of folks are not going to like her straying out of her lane in the future. It does help that she’s very good at the supernatural part, which is the other half of this book. The ghosts are more sad than terrifying, but I’m sure we’ll have even more of them in future.

This also got an anime in the fall (which, be warned, used the Chinese names rather than the Japanese ones as this translation does). It succeeds for the same reason the other three series I mentioned do. Not because of the genre, or because of the mysteries. It’s because they’re REALLY well written. I wasn’t planning to read more. It’s now definitely one I’ll read more of.