Apothecary: a person who prepared and sold medicines and drugs. -Oxford Dictionary
While the definition of apothecary includes selling medicines, our protagonist in The Apothecary Diaries doesn’t get that economic luxury because of her slavery status. The story follows Maomao, a young woman who was taken from her family and forced to work at the inner palace as a maid and any earnings she receives is sent back to her “family” (aka her kidnappers). What makes Maomao so different from the rest of the maids at the palace, was that she was taught how to read and write and trained as an apothecary. For the first three months of her new employment, she was able to keep it a secret in order to avoid getting a higher position that would only end up lining her abductor’s pockets with her hard work. But when she hears about a curse on the royal family that kills all of the emperor’s heirs in infancy, Maomao becomes suspicious. Seeing as there are currently two babies born to the emperor’s favorite concubines who are both sick with unknown illnesses attributed to the curse, Maomao decides to investigate. She concludes that the makeup that many of the courtesans wear contains poisonous chemicals that are affecting not only the babies, but the women who wear them.
Maomao attempts to warn the two mothers of the poison anonymously, unfortunately for Maomao she is discovered. Jinshi, a man of power within the court but who’s job title is a mystery, figures out that Maomao was the one who discovered the reason for the babies unnatural ailment and promotes her as food taster for Consort Gyokuyo, mother of the emperor’s daughter and his favorite consort. It is soon discovered the Maomao is very skilled in not only identifying poisons, but also brewing potions and identifying other ailments.
I absolutely loved this book. Most manga I read happen to be the ones I review, which are typically volume ones of the series. Normally they start off slow, with a lot of introduction to the characters and the world the story takes place in. The story itself isn't normally super compelling until the second volume. This volume one moves fast and doesn’t slow down. There is very little of an introductory chapter and instead Maomao explains things along the way, which is how I prefer writers introduce new material instead of doing a knowledge dump right in the beginning. The author does a really good job in introducing the main storyline and I felt that Maomao was a very interesting protagonist. Through flashback scenes and Maomao referring back to her past to solve problems in her present, we see what kind of resilient, hard working woman she truly is. When I first read that she was kidnapped and forced to work at the palace, I was surprised how easily she was able to adapt. Then you learn that her previous surroundings were similar to working in the palace and the only thing missing was her father, who she worried about much more than her own fate.
There were a lot of comedic elements in the manga that I found very entertaining. The reaction that Maomao has to Jinshi, who is considered very attractive and has no trouble gaining affection from the opposite sex, is probably my faviorte character interactions. Maomao considers herself unattractive, so when this very attractive male gives her unwelcome attention, she gets confused and a little angry, which only makes Jinshi entertained. It’s really funny. Maomao’s inner monologue is also a highlight. In her previous job as an apothecary, she did a lot of tests on herself with poisons and other substances that could have an ill effect on other people, resulting in her becoming immune to different poisons and having a higher tolerance for others. So when Consort Gyokuyo’s ladies in waiting are all looking grim and feel sorry for Maomao having to be the new food tester, she basically laughs at them in her head and the scene as a whole is pretty entertaining.
There was a lot of relatively historical accuracy in the manga that I appreciated. The use of consorts and concubines was very common in Asian culture and the use of it in this book tied back to that part of history. I thought it was explained very well in the book and even if the reader didn’t have prior knowledge of the system, I don’t believe they would be confused. The harem storyline was more of a background plot and a means to explain the story’s setting and showed a much more realistic interpretation of harems and the emotional toll it created for the women. I thought it added to the story and while Maomao wasn’t a part of the emperor’s harem, she was still directly affected by the culture living at the palace.
Because I’ve seen so many movies and read so many books that I’m not generally surprised by a plot's outcome, yet this book left me a bit surprised by certain points. Without revealing too much, toward the end of the manga Maomao has to figure out how to stop one of the consorts from sleep walking. She figures out what is going on, but I thought it was going to be from something different than what it turned out to be. The reason behind her sleep walking ends up highlighting some of the negatives of being a woman at that time and I ended up feeling really bad for most of the characters in the book. It had an impact that I wasn’t expecting. Overall, I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to the release of volume two in February.
The Apothicary Diaries Volume 1
Maomao, a young woman trained in the art of herbal medicine, is forced to work as a lowly servant in the inner palace. Though she yearns for life outside its perfumed halls, she isn’t long for a life of drudgery! Using her wits to break a “curse” afflicting the imperial heirs, Maomao attracts the attentions of the handsome eunuch Jinshi and is promoted to attendant food taster. But Jinshi has other plans for the erstwhile apothecary, and soon Maomao is back to brewing potions and…solving mysteries?!"Add to CartLearn More