Raven of the Inner Palace, Vol. 5

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 series, while telling the story of Jusetsu and her attempts to broaden her world, find out more about the Raven Consort in general, and escape, began as an anthology series to a large degree, which each chapter featuring a ghost story of the week for her to solve. That still happens at the start of the fifth book, with a court lady whose makeup box is upsetting people in the living quarters by being haunted by a ghost. But as this book goes on we realize that we’re past the halfway point of the series, and we can’t really focus that much on Jusetsu solving ghost crimes anymore. Or rather, the ghost crimes she’s solving are ones that affect her specifically. Because we’re getting to the bottom of what the Raven Consort position really is, and what happens to those who have been Raven Consorts, and let me tell you, it might be scarier than most of the stories we’ve read in this series to date.

Jusetsu is not the only one trying to figure out how to break the barrier stopping her from leaving and free the raven, the Emperor is as well. This is despite the fact that he (consciously) and Jusetsu (unconsciously) are in love with each other, and leaving the palace will mean never being able to return. The Emperor, towards that end, has now buckled down to the position of siring an heir – two of the consorts are now pregnant. He’s even inviting back old retainers who had previously been exiled for being on the wrong side of past conflicts, mostly as he finds it a lot more preferable to have any seeds of rebellion close to him rather than far away where he can’t do much. Meanwhile, Jusetsu gets the shamans needed to help her destroy the barrier, and even knows where she should probably go, thanks to several old folk tales about an underwater volcano. Unfortunately, that pesky God is still around…

Jusetsu was told, at the start of this series, that she had to be alone, not take retainers or bodyguards, and hold herself aloof. This from the previous Raven Consort. She has not remotely done that, and for the most part the consequences have been pretty good – close friendships, respect, people who like spending time with her. Unfortunately, we’re now seeing the pendulum swing the other way. Solving the problem of the makeup box, for example, even though it saved a life, just makes people think that she was the cause of the accident. And I suspect the cliffhanger at the climax of this volume is going to make leaving the palace more of a “fleeing for her life” sort of deal. That said, anything’s better than suffering the fate of all the Raven Consorts before her, whose souls are frozen in a sort of massive grudge to prevent exactly what Jusetsu has been doing. It’s a bit scary.

There are, I believe, two more volumes in the series, and I suspect we’re not going to have too many “let’s solve a mystery” chapters anymore. Where we will go remains intriguing.

Raven of the Inner Palace, Vol. 4

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.

Usually when you see character development, it’s meant to be heartwarming, or affirming, and generally a good thing. And there is that here. Seeing Jusetsu gradually open up to being around others, helping people, and growing more comfortable in her own skin is absolutely a good thing, and the Emperor knows it. That said, the fact that she is the Raven Consort makes this a bit of a double-edged sword. The classic joke “I’m not like other girls” is eerily true here, and that’s why there’s a sense of this series moving faster and faster down a hill towards a crash that Jusetsu is not going to be able to stop. It does not help that certain factions in the court are trying to apply the accelerator rather than the brakes, and suddenly instead of being fond of Jusetsu, or looking up to Jusetsu, they are WORSHIPING Jusetsu. And that’s definitely a bad thing, give that’s she’s already a part of a god, and the other god who is the enemy may be getting back to full strength.

The main plot shows the Crane Consort’s father, Choyo, arrive at the palace, supposedly in order to apologize to the Emperor for what happened in the last book, and grace him with some of their most valuable silkworm cocoons. In reality, Choyo is there to blackmail/threaten the Emperor with the knowledge that he knows who Jusetsu is and that she should stay isolated in her own quarters. Meanwhile, the man responsible for the events of the third book, Hakurai, may have lost an eye but is not remotely down and out, and he’s here to try to kill Jusetsu *and* destroy her reputation – and nearly succeeds at the second. And, of course, these events are interspersed with the meat and potatoes of this series; a ghost is in the palace, let’s figure out why.

Generally speaking the main reason to read any of these “inner palace of the Emperor” series, be it Apothecary Diaries, Though I Am an Inept Villainess, or this one, is for the court politics, and that’s no exception here. Jusetsu is trying her best, helping people and making sure to right wrongs and save those who can be saved (and send to the afterlife those who can’t). But by the end of the book she’s basically been asked to stay shut up until further notice, and while I doubt that will last long, it feels like a loss for her. This is not to say that Choyo wins, however. Banka easily gets the most interesting plotline and the best moment in the book, as she’s seemingly ineffectual, useless, and getting sicker and sicker over the course of the book. I say seemingly because she confronts her father angrily near the end, reveals a secret she’s been holding back that upends a lot of what will be coming, and basically says “I’m not your toy anymore”. It’s great. I can’t wait to see how she nobly dies in a future volume.

Good intrigue, great characters, worrying that it will end with half the cast dead, but hey. Romance is sort of vaguely there but very much in the background. To sum up: read this, it’s good.

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.