I almost completely forgot this series was coming out. I think I saw it come up on my Twitter feed from the publisher or someone who follows manga releases, but only really remembered it existed when I went to browse my comic book store a few weeks ago. I saw it sitting on one of the shelves, and immediately knew I needed to buy it. I have always been interested in stories that focus on herbology, medicine, or solving medical mysteries. Snow White with the Red Hair is evidence of that, since I’m sure I’ve written a ton about that series and how much I loved how it dug into herbology and medicine in a slightly medieval fantasy world. The Apothecary Diaries takes a similar look at how herbs are used in an older Asian society where Imperial rulers and concubines still exist and not much is really known about medicine just yet. I wound up loving this first volume, the characters, and the setting. I really can’t wait for the next one.
The Apothecary Diaries focuses on the life of a young woman named Maomao who is forced to work as a servant in the inner palace of the imperial family. After being kidnapped by slavers while out collecting medicinal herbs, she finds herself working in the inner sanctum of the concubine’s palace, doing odd jobs and enduring the drudgery. But what she really wishes is a life outside the palace walls where she can continue with her Apothecary studies. A chance comes for her to change her fate when the imperial heirs come down with a “curse.” But is it really a curse, or something more natural?
The manga is an adaptation of stories by Natsu Hyuuga, with character designs by Touco Shino, and manga art by Nekokurage. I love the character designs as well. I think Shino really captured the imperial Asian aesthetic with the long flowing robes, intricate head-pieces, and hairstyles. There could probably be more detail given to the clothing, but I understand that Nekokurage would then have to draw that repeatedly through the volume. I think the level of detail through the pages works for what the manga is trying to accomplish through its story and characters. Nekokurage already does a great job bringing important moments into focus through the panel design and values, so I think those aspects do a good job of adding a level of visual interest where the manga doesn’t necessarily need a higher level of detail to succeed in capturing our attention.
Maomao, as the main character, is the focus of many of these pages, and I think Nekokurage takes advantage of this to really bring out her sarcastic personality through her expressions. I loved seeing how she reacts to everyone in the palace, especially the concubines and the frustrating Jinshi who takes a liking to her. Her expressions very clearly convey her dislike of everything going on around her and her extreme interest in herbs and being an apothecary. With all of the deadly mysteries, backstabbing, and gossip going around the palace, the expressions of the characters and the way Nekokurage draws attention to the conflict within the story through the panels, really helps accentuate the plot and suspense.
The Apothecary Diaries, as the name suggests, focuses on how Maomao studies and solves mysteries surrounding the imperial palace through her knowledge of herbs and poisons. After being sold into slavery as a maid in the palace, she couldn’t quite keep higher level of learning a secret from those above her. Her ability to read, write, and make medicine was soon found out by a very smart, yet annoying advisor named Jinshi. As much as Maomao wanted to remain under the radar, she couldn’t refuse his offer of access to the palace’s storehouse of herbs. The banter between Jinshi and Maomao is one of the best things about the series, and I really began to love their relationship. His curious yet scheming interest in her knowledge of herbs contrasts well with her intense dislike of his overall personality and interest in her. Her eyes are really only for herbs and potions, and it shows very clearly on her face. Her straightforwardness may be one of her character strengths and definitely adds a note of comedy to the series, but I can also see it as being one of her downfalls later on. Especially in an environment that runs on gossip and backstabbing to get the attention of their ruler.
Medical mysteries play a big part in this series, and every chapter has something going on that Maomao has to figure out. The first big mystery that exposes Maomao to those above her is when the imperial heirs begin to come down with what many think is a curse. She quickly recognizes the symptoms as those of poisoning and tries to discreetly warn the mothers. I love how the particulars of these diseases and poisoning cases are spelled out very clearly by Maomao, and the story goes into how she figures it out and the kinds of cures she makes to combat them. Some of the mysteries are very interesting, and I love seeing Maomao’s thought process as she tries to piece together what is happening.
I’m not sure that the manga will develop any romance in future volumes, but I really wanted to write something about this series because I really did love this first volume. I think the closest we’ll get to romance is the back and forth between Jinshi and Maomao, but that may only develop to being a big brother type relationship. I haven’t checked out the light novel or stories this manga was adapted from, so I can’t really say what will happen in future volumes, but I am really interested to see where this story goes. I’m sure we’ll see a lot more mysteries, strange diseases, poisoning, gossip, and potions being brewed. This series may come to rival my other favorite Snow White with the Red Hair in its herbology focus in all honesty.
For those of you who have read the light novel, let me know in the comments how you liked the original stories. Also let me know if you’ve read this volume, or are thinking of reading it, and what you thought!
~~Thanks for Reading!~~
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