Manga You Should Be Reading: ‘The Apothecary Diaries’

With Witch Hat Atelier, I started a new series here at BNP about the manga series you should be reading. I aim to write about manga series that are highly acclaimed, manga series that are finally getting anime adaptations, and hopefully manga that will move you the way that they have moved me.

At heart, with these entries–major spoiler free–I hope to give you a good feel of the series and why it is so loved and poured over. This here is a manga series that I did not catch the very beginning of but quickly caught up and devoured it for good reason. My friends, you should be reading the brilliant The Apothecary Diaries!

The Apothecary Diaries

Story and Art by: Natsu Hyuuga (Author), Nekokurage (Artist), Itsuki Nanao (Compiler), Touco Shino (Character Designer)

Publisher: Square Enix Manga & Books 

Available Formats: Print & Digital

Ongoing or Completed: Ongoing (7 volumes as of April 2023)

Localization Team: Julie Goniwich (Translator), Lys Blakeslee (Letterer), Andrea Miller (Cover Designer), Tania Biswas (Editor)

What is this Manga About:

Panel from Volume 1 of The Apothecary Diaries published by Square Enix Manga & Books 

Maomao, a young woman trained in the art of herbal medicine, is kidnapped and forced to work as a lowly servant in the inner palace. She is just trying to keep her head down. She intends to work off whatever contract she’s been sold off with and make her way back home to her apothecary father and extended family. The Rear Palace is a place she never wants to see again with its perfumed halls and snobbery. Yet, it is a place where the emperor’s favorite consorts and their offspring live and how Maomao’s troubles begin.

The Apothecary Diaries is the manga adaptation of a light novel series that follows seventeen-year-old Maomao and her secret that pushes her into being indispensable to the palace! While she looks just like an ordinary girl, Maomao is quick witted and has an extensive knowledge of medicine. She also knows how to read and has fine deducing skills. When the palace is in an uproar, she ponders what to do to help anonymously and attracts the attention of the head eunuch, Jinshi. This high-ranking official assigns the anti-social teenager as a lady-in-waiting to none other than the emperor’s favorite consort.

Maomao is not quite sure what to make of this newest job of hers when she learns that she has been placed to taste the lady’s food for poison; however, it is her making a scene brewing potions and…solving mysteries results from this career change. At her lady’s side, Maomao starts to learn about everything that goes on in the Rear Palace—not all of it is what is seems. Can she ever return home and back to her quiet life? Or will her powers of deduction and insatiable curiosity bring her ever more adventures, new allies, and even more dangers?

Pages from Volume 1 of The Apothecary Diaries published by Square Enix Manga & Books 

Recommended for: 

  • For those who love detective stories
  • People who like their light novel tie-ins 
  • Fans of the historical, romance, and mystery genres in manga
  • Readers looking for recent manga series with female protagonists
  • Manga readers who want stunning, detailed artwork to compliment an engaging story

Can My Kid(s) Read the Source Material:

The publisher’s website labels the manga as “TEEN.” So this manga is for readers roughly ages 13 – 17 years of age. The protagonist was raised in a brothel in pleasure district, and she ends up serving the ladies in the harem for the emperor. I would recommend this series be to be held for the older teens. Maomao does mention and discuss sexuality and bodies–as it is part of her world, but there is no nudity and no graphic imagery to be seen in the volumes that I’ve read so far. There is also some cheeky humor from time to time that certainly hits in a way that would go over the heads of younger readers.

Panels from Volume 2 of The Apothecary Diaries published by Square Enix Manga & Books 

Where Can I Read It:

In print, the manga series is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-million, and Indigo. Digitally, the series is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indigo. (The light novel series which I am told is a superior one, that I haven’t had the chance to start reading yet is available digitally by J-Novel Club through Amazon, Kobo, Nook and Bookwalker.

Pages from Volume 1 of The Apothecary Diaries published by Square Enix Manga & Books 

Who are Some Important Characters You Should Know About:

Maomao: She’s not a people pleaser, but she sure can read them. Our teenage protagonist is a bit of an anti-social person, who would rather spend her time collecting precious herbs for medicines than make small talk. The daughter of an apothecary, she picked up on her father’s work and found it was something she enjoyed. She’s quiet but not dim-witted, and this comes in handy as she comes to live in the Rear Palace that caters to the consorts of the Emperor. Thanks to Jinshi, she finds herself caught up in mystery after mystery with new dangers and clues popping up at every corner. She doesn’t fawn over the handsome official and keeps him at an arm’s length as she doesn’t care much for nobility and those of higher rank who could abuse their power.

Jinshi: The good looking, popular eunuch who takes a liking to Maomao and sees beyond the facade she places up in the palace. He usually has lots of free time on his hands and moves freely in the place, seemingly to oversee the inner palace. He has no shortage of admirers and yet he seems to hold an intimate connection to the emperor, himself. Maomao has speculating for a while that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to him, and she’s right! He often pesters the young woman for his own amusement yet still manages to shield her with his protection when she needs it.

Why I Believe You Should be Reading it:

The Apothecary Diaries (Manga) Volumes 1-3

The Apothecary Diaries employs a narrative about challenging the status quo which is always an interesting theme in the media we consume. Here in a historical setting, not just Maomao feels the pressures and tensions of navigating her workplace, the palace, and the road back home. Jinshi, shrouded in all the mysteries and infamy of his high ranking position, also feels out of place at times when orders from above test his loyalties and his morals. Everyone from the maids to aides of officials to the doctor assigned to one of the high-ranking concubines are all working their lives away attempting to do their jobs to the best of their abilities, whether they are truly good at their jobs or not. Some seek out nefarious means, too. With each volume comes new information about the factions and different motivations of the people entering the home of the Emperor and his favored ones.

Maomao is a refreshing protagonist to see moving around and out the inner palace. She is a disrupter, making waves as she goes. She is not oblivious to her station in life, born in the pleasure district, she’s eked out a good life catering to her interests and talents of handling herbs and medicines. The upheaval of her life to the palace means she’s aware of the limiting class and gender structures of her day and knows she must be careful in how she proceeds in completing her tasks. Whether that’s making sure not to be arrogant to a male palace doctor as to not lose access to his office to catering the higher rankling consorts to make aphrodisiacs to win favor of the emperor, it is insightful to see her plan her next moves.

The Apothecary Diaries (Manga) Volumes 4-6

The Apothecary Diaries is a manga that speaks to the ways that girls and women made a way for themselves in a time and place that may have not always cared much for them. From young women in the pleasure districts who wished for their freedom one day to concubines in the palace who lost their babies and fell from the emperor’s thoughts, I loved that the more I read the more layered the stories became. The cast of supporting characters grows and grows and readers will start to see how lives are impacted by small and big news. They all do their best to survive given their circumstances.

I think of the young palace maids being illiterate solely dependent on trying to recognize correct signage on visuals alone or by asking those they trusted not to ridicule them. Or the ladies in waiting assigned to a beloved consort for years and seeing a new maidservant enter her service made them feel their position was in jeopardy. There are layers to the many characters, most of them women, and all the ways their places in society at every level were fragile and worth fighting for. On that note, Maomao’s complicated backstory and family lineage is absolutely worth reading and becoming emotionally invested in, several volumes in. It is masterful as piece by piece is revealed

Is there a curse targeting the heirs of the emperor or is there a scientific reason why the babies and their mothers are falling ill? Is there really a ghost out dancing at midnight scarring all who see her or is there a crafty young woman out there attempting to change public opinion of her to better her fate? The Apothecary Diaries pulls some fantastic “cases” with Maomao at the heart of them with her sharp mind and detective work, often doing overtime.

Sure, sure of the first few mysteries run too episodic and are solved a little too cleanly. Yet the more volumes of the series that I read, the more and more the never-ending work for our little apothecary-turned-maidservant-turned-beloved servant-of-the-concubines-turned-detective revealed a much bigger picture that is not to be missed. The political intrigue runs hand in hand with lots of little surprises and conspiracies that boil to the top and make it perfect for fans of thrillers and crime.

It was announced this year that the manga is receiving an anime adaption via TOHO animation! The Apothecary Diaries has quickly moved its way up my reading list with its engaging narrative about using your talents to weed out corruption and better the lives of others. Yet, I was not aware that I would come to cherish Maomao and the growing number of friends and allies she gains as she solves the cases and survives the dangers brought to her. You should be reading this series as it is a great time to read up before the manga adaptation ends and before the anime arrives on the scene!

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  • Carrie McClain is writer, editor and media scholar. Other times she's known as a Starfleet Communications Officer, Comics Auntie, and Golden Saucer Frequenter. Nowadays you can usually find her avoiding Truck-kun and forgetting her magical girl transformation device. She/Her

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