While it’s natural that there would be differences between a light novel and its manga adaptation, the most striking change between The Apothecary Diaries’ source material and its manga version comes down to focus. Both versions of Natsu Hyūga’s Chinese court drama feature apothecary Mao Mao solving the problems that come her way, often at the behest of Jinshi, but where the novels are more interested in how all of these things come together to form an overarching story, the manga is keener on the individual mysteries themselves. The result is that both versions of the story are equally good with enough of a separation between them to make reading both light novels and manga a worthwhile endeavor.
These volumes of the manga cover the second novel in the original series, and they shift the action from the Inner Court, where Mao Mao previously served after being kidnapped and press ganged, to the Outer Court. Mao Mao was originally free to return to her home and adoptive father in the Pleasure District of the city, but the exquisitely beautiful eunuch Jinshi had other plans, and he managed to hire her as one of his attendants. Or at least that was his plan; Mao Mao’s disinterest in things non-medical put paid to that scheme relatively quickly when she failed the apparently simple court ladies’ exam. To Jinshi’s dismay, she’s now working as his maidservant, which is clearly not what he had in mind. Just why he was determined not to let Mao Mao go is almost certainly multi-fold – eunuch or no (and that’s a question that’s very much up in the air at this point), he plainly likes her in a romantic way, and that certainly informed his desire not to let her fade back into relative obscurity. But he also recognizes her as a remarkably skilled individual, and that he wanted her to enter the Outer Palace in a more advanced capacity speaks to his wish to use those skills in his work.
Fortunately for him, Mao Mao isn’t the sort of person to do precisely as bid, and we quickly see her inserting herself into the various strange occurrences around the palace. The central issue is the burning of a storage shed; it at first seems like a relative nonevent – only one person was injured and nothing of great importance was lost, nor did the fire spread. But Mao Mao questions why someone set the building up to burn in the first place, recognizing that a random explosion is in itself an anomaly worth questioning. When we add to this the presence of a handsome, reserved court lady who stands out by the way she holds herself apart from the rest of the women, Mao Mao starts to realize that there’s a lot more going on than anyone else is aware of.
One of the strengths of these two volumes is the way that they build the clues and mysteries without really letting you know what they’re doing. The initial cases Mao Mao is asked to investigate (or just decides to look into because she’s bored) don’t appear to be at all linked, or even to be all that important. It’s only by piecing things together that we can see that there’s more going on, and even Mao Mao takes a bit of time to figure that out. She’s not one of those “smartest man in the room” detectives; she’s someone whose mind hops around and draws connections while she’s busy doing other things, and that makes her a more organic detective figure than many others. She goes between thinking aloud and not saying anything until she’s certain, a mix which keeps everyone around her (readers included) on their toes, and that really pays off nicely in these two books.
The other major plot point within these volumes is the question of Jinshi himself. While Mao Mao doesn’t question his eunuch (castrato) status at all, there are plenty of reasons why we should, and new character Lakan gives us ample reason to doubt. Lakan himself is an interesting addition to the cast in how he functions as foil figure to Jinshi, Gao Shun, and Mao Mao’s adoptive father, all men who are at least nominal eunuchs and much less objectionable in their actions. Lakan implies that he has committed actions that are truly reprehensible, particularly towards several women in the Pleasure District, and he harbors animus towards Jinshi for his purported “buying out” of Mao Mao. (Never mind that it’s untrue; Mao Mao’s not a sex worker, so he couldn’t “buy her out” because she has no indenture.) This dovetails uncomfortably with Mao Mao’s treatment of a woman at Verdigris House who is dying of syphilis and reminds us that Mao Mao is the lucky one, a woman who has managed to make her own decisions about her future with the strength of mind – and good fortune – to be able to keep it that way.
Nekokurage’s visual adaptation of the story is really very good, and they have a real flair for background details. Keep an eye on Gao Shun in particular; he appears in the background of many of Jinshi and Mao Mao’s scenes and his expressions and body language are spectacular. Overall the art is easy to read and lovely to look at, which enhances the story with a firm sense of place. The color art is particularly nice, and the fun detail of how Mao Mao’s eyes match her dress on each cover is entertaining.
Whether you read the original light novels, the manga, or both, The Apothecary Diaries is an enjoyable story. With its mysteries slowly coming together in these manga volumes we can see the work building its world as it dives deeper into the affairs at court. It’s simply a good read and definitely worth your time.