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Literature / The Apothecary Diaries

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The Apothecary Diaries (Japanese title: 薬屋のひとりごと, Kusuriya no Hitorigoto) is a Web Serial Novel by Natsu Hyuuga. Originally starting in 2011 on Shousetsuka ni Narou, the novel's first volume was published by Ray Books in 2012. Two years later, it was republished as a light novel series by Hero Bunkoban with illustrations by Touko Shino. There are two manga adaptations, both of which began in 2017; the former (The Apothecary Diaries) illustrated by Nekokurage is serialized in Monthly Big Gangan, and the latter (Kusuriya no Hitorigoto: Maomao no Koukyuu Nazotoki Techou) illustrated by Minoji Kurata is serialized in Monthly Sunday Gene-X. A Historical Fantasy, it is set in a Chinese inspired land.

The series follows Maomao, a cynical pharmacist who worked in the red-light district before being kidnapped and sold as a servant in the imperial court. Wanting to lead a quiet life, Maomao initially hides her capabilities until the death of the crown prince and illness of the consorts forces her hand. Though she attempted to act discreetly, she is caught by the beautiful eunuch, Jinshi. He enlists her as a food-taster and frequently consults her on herbology and mysterious deaths in the court. Despite her wish to live quietly and concoct medicines, Maomao is constantly thrown into a detective role due to the political machinations of the court.


Since November 2020 the light novel series is officially licensed and published by J-Novel Club.

The manga series drawn by Nekokurage is officially licensed by Square Enix and published since December 2020. The French translation is published by Ki-Oon.

The Apothecary Diaries contains examples of:

  • 10-Minute Retirement: Maomao is dismissed from the rear palace near the end of Volume 1. Since that greatly depresses Jinshi and Maomao never wanted to leave, Gaoshun arranges a meeting with Lihaku's help. After learning about her situation, Jinshi decides to pay off Maomao's debts and reemploy her, this time as his personal servant.
  • Abhorrent Admirer: Inverted. Jinshi, the most beautiful man in the setting, falls for Maomao, a plain maidservant. Maomao refuses to acknowledge this.
  • Abusive Parents:
    • As shown in Volume 2, Maomao has a nightmare of when her mother sliced a piece of a young Maomao's pinky while restraining her. Not exactly 'Mother of the Year' material. Thankfully, her father(s) love her and treat her well.
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    • As revealed in Volume 4, Lady Shenmei apparently poured boiling water over her daughter's (Loulan's) hands when she didn't do a good enough job with massaging her.
  • Accidental Murder: Subverted. In Volume 1, Maomao detects poison in the soup that is served at the garden party. The intended target was Lishu, but her own poison tester Kanan switched the food on the tray with Gyokuyou's food, because she wanted to embarrass Lishu, as she knew Lishu doesn't eat mackerel. Maomao later explains to Lishu and Kanan that Lishu is actually allergic to mackerel and abalone, so it's not like she just doesn't want to eat, she can't, and in the worst case she could die if she does so anyway. Kanan accidentally saved Lishu's life by switching the food, but now that she knows Lishu is allergic to some things, if she ever tried to make Lishu eat something she is allergic to again, it would be like she poisoned Lishu.
  • Acquired Poison Immunity: Maomao has built up a tolerance (though not total immunity) to poison through her experiments.
  • All Men Are Perverts: Due to the historical nature of the setting, this attitude is commonplace. Maomao notes there are those in the pleasure district starved for sex and sexually assault women. Even Maomao, who is described as 'chicken-boned', experienced an attempted rape which upset Jinshi. Due to this, Maomao deliberately uglifies herself with fake freckles.
  • Alternate Character Reading: The names of the characters can be read very differently, as it's an Imperial Chinese-inspired work written by a Japanese person. Therefore, the reading isn't strictly kun-yomi, on-yomi; sometimes the reading is meant to be slightly different. For instance, the name 梨花 in on-yomi is リカ (Rika), but the author gives リファ (Rifa), which is why the official English translation chose the name based on Mandarin Chinese - Lihua. 玉葉 in Chinese would be Yuye, but the given furigana make it clear that it's meant to be read in on-yomi, so her name is ギョクヨウ (Gyokuyou).
  • Arranged Marriage: With the story being set in the court, arranged marriages are common. When Jinshi is later revealed as crown prince, a gathering full of young eligible women is thrown for potential mates. He, of course, announces his interest in the Ra daughter, Maomao.
  • Aren't You Going to Ravish Me?: Maomao to Jinshi, in one instance. After Jinshi forcefully comes on to Maomao, she is surprised by his hesitance after she returned his kiss in self-defence. While Maomao abhors the kiss and wants it to be over as soon as possible, Jinshi misreads her lack of reaction as scorn that he isn't capable of "triumphing over" her.
  • Aroused by Their Voice: Maomao notes Jinshi's 'voice of honey' could melt any woman. Well, except her, apparently.
  • Assassination Attempt:
    • In Volume 1, during the garden party Maomao detects poison in the soup that was intended for Consort Gyokuyou. However, Maomao finds out that the actual intended target was Consort Lishu. The culprit was Ah-Duo's chief lady-in-waiting, Fengming. She was trying to save Ah-Duo from losing her position by freeing up the Diamond Pavilion for Ah-Duo's replacement.
    • In Volume 3, Ka Zuigetsu, the Imperial younger brother, i.e. Jinshi, is almost gunned down by assassins.
  • Attractiveness Discrimination: Something Maomao is all too aware of. While she is often treated as irrelevant, people bend over backwards for Jinshi just for a smile. Thankfully for her, that’s the way she likes it.
  • Awful Truth: At the end of Volume 1, Maomao, who to a degree sympathizes with the culprit, suggests to hide one of the motives for their Assassination Attempt on Lishu. Fengming fed Ah-Duo's child honey that was safe for adults, but not for babies. Lishu knew about honey being more lethal for babies, so Fengming attempted to silence her. Ah-Duo's child's cause of death is a truth that neither Fengming nor Maomao want anyone to find out, so Fengming turns herself in and only says that she wanted Ah-Duo to keep her position as consort as the motive.
  • Beautiful All Along: A mild example: Maomao reveals she's been painting freckles onto her face to be less attractive to men, making her less likely to be sexually assaulted. Without her freckles, she much more closely resembles a traditional Japanese beauty, which Jimen takes notice of.
  • Benevolent Boss: Despite his teasing and flirtations, Maomao notes that Jinshi's actually a pretty swell boss. He bought her into his service to avoid her becoming a courtesan (though to be fair, it was because he laid her off she was in that situation in the first place) and gave her a personal room. He also later upgraded it, to boot! To thank him, she attempted a smile taught to her by her sisters, which ended up with Jinshi banging his head on a column. Despite it being a When She Smiles moment, Maomao surmises that her smile was so atrocious and vows not to do it again.
  • Big Damn Heroes: In Volume 2, Maomao concludes that someone intends to kill a high-ranking official with a faulty construction. She barely arrives in time before the official, who turns out to be Jinshi, is saved in time, although in the process she cuts her leg open.
  • Bishounen: Jinshi. He's so hot everybody wants a piece of him. Well, except Maomao, who is literally the only one he wants attention from. Poor guy.
  • Break the Haughty: Maomao does this to one of Lihua's handmaids. Maomao at first ignores the handmaid for making rude remarks about her and calling her ugly but when Maomao learns that the handmaid still used the lead makeup on Lihua despite the palace banning it after learning it's poisonous, she gets pissed with the handmaid, slaps her and calls her out for her stupidity for still using the same poison that killed Lihua's baby and is slowly killing Lihua herself. The haughty handmaid can only weakly make excuses about wanting to make her mistress beautiful and is forced to quit.
  • Cruel Mercy: In Volume 3, Shin received this from Lihua. Her life was spared despite what would normally have been an executable offense, but in turn her future, name and reputation were irreparably damaged, and she was banished from the rear palace (and with it any chance of receiving the Emperor's affections).
  • Death Glare: Both Maomao and Jinshi are shown to have quite the scary death glares. Showdown!
  • Did Not Die That Way: Ah-Duo's child. It is revealed that Ah-Duo's child died from poison in honey, which Fengming unwittingly fed to the baby. But is that all there is to it?
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The different societal values of the era are explored. There are some minor examples, such as how the emperor favors buxom women, in contrast to how many present day nations view slender women as more beautiful. This is true to history, as there were certain time periods in China's history in which curvier women were favored. There are also darker examples. For instance, one of the king's top consorts is only fourteen, but her political position is seen as rather weak because he never sleeps with her. Most people view this as a sad thing for her, but Maomao is disgusted by the thought of an emperor filling his harem with child consorts.
  • Didn't See That Coming:
    • In Volume 1, Maomao uses the hair stick she received from Lihaku to make him accompany her back home. In return, she arranges a night for him at the Verdigris House. She baited him by claiming that she would pay for him for a weekend with one of the Verdigris House's three princesses. When they arrive at the Verdigris House the old proprietess really does produce Pairin, and since Lihaku is exactly her type, she gives him a magical night. The grams adds this all to Maomao's debt.
    • At the start of Volume 2, Jinshi and Gaoshun planned to give Maomao bigger duties. What they didn't expect was for her, who is literate, clearly intelligent, and so knowledgable about medicine, to flunk the test, which is why she is only supposed to work as a maid and clean the rooms or carry out small errands. Maomao completely loses her motivation when it's not about medicine-related topics like history or law.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: All those in the imperial harem are victim to Jinshi's looks, to his discontent. Maomao comments that's probably why he only has Suiren, Gaoshun and later her as his personal staff. He also hires En'en for an extended period of time because she's only attracted to Yao.
  • Erotic Eating: The infamous honey scene, where Jinshi sticks his two middle fingers in a jar of the stuff before offering Maomao a taste, complete with bedroom eyes.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: This is Lihua's response in Volume 4 once she finds out that her cousin Shin has been attempting to abort her second pregnancy.
  • Eunuchs Are Evil: Averted. While stereotypical scheming eunuchs do exist in this world, the majority of eunuchs are stated to be relatively gentle, easygoing types.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Multiple times, as the story is a mystery series. For instance, near the end of Volume 1, Maomao has such a moment when she suspects that the imperial babies were swapped. This would mean that the crown prince is still alive. She ditches that idea after discovering that Jinshi would be said crown prince. Because no way that pervert eunuch is the next emperor of the country, right? Hahaha...ha.
  • Even the Guys Want Him: Jinshi's looks have been known to attract quite a bit of male attention.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: The setting is pretty much just China, with a few tweaks.
  • Finger-Licking Poison: A staple in this world. Maomao off to the rescue!
  • First Love: Maomao's father's first love was her mother, Fengxian. She was one of the few whose face Lakan could see. It's likely one of the reasons he's so attached to Maomao.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Jinshi, on multiple occasions. Gaoshun frequently is victim to Jinshi’s green-eyed glare. And when Maomao came back with Lihaku? He was pissed.
  • Grudging "Thank You": Maomao, to Jinshi. He becomes quite pleased with himself, to the irritation of Maomao.
  • He Knows Too Much: One of the reasons Consort Lishu was almost murdered in Volume 1 was that she may accidentally tip off Ah-Duo that her son died to poisonous honey that Fengming fed to him.
  • Hot Consort: Gyokuyou, Lihua and Ah-Duo respectively. Lishu is a bit too young for that.
  • How Dad Met Mom: How Maomao's parents met, detailed in Volume 2. A whole chapter is dedicated to their meeting and relationship.
  • I Can't Believe a Guy Like You Would Notice Me: Inverted, as Maomao neither appreciates nor returns Jinshi's affection. Her self-deprecation is not based on a lack of self-worth, but rather, a realistic evaluation of herself as a potential mate, which is not conventionally attractive.
  • Idle Rich: What Maomao thought Jinshi was, seeing as he often stopped by just to tease her. Later averted, when she starts to work for him as his maid and realises that he is actually really busy and works his ass off. Still, it doesn't answer how a eunuch can be swimming in so much gold...
  • It Runs in the Family: Maomao's adoptive father says 'the rear palace, eh? I guess it's fate.' Others comment on Maomao's eccentric nature and cunning resembling her biological father, Lakan.
  • Lost in Translation: Foreshadowing is oftentimes lost in the translation, since the names are romanized.
    • As is revealed in Volume 2, Luomen is Lakan's uncle. Luomen is written as 羅門, while Lakan is written as 羅漢. Both share the 羅 character, which can be read as either "luo" or as "la".
    • In Volume 3, Maomao meets an upbeat serving woman, Shisui. The characters for her name (子翠) are a bit unusual. As is later noted in Volume 4, Shisui is the former name of Suirei (翠苓). It was made up of the distinctive 翠 (sui) character (which is still present in Suirei) and 子 (shi), for she is actually a member of the Shi clan.
  • Love Potion: In Volume 1, Jinshi requests Maomao to concoct an aphrodisiac, which she does. Well, it turns out quite effective, as seen by the three maids being all hot and bothered. Curious, Jinshi tries it out too and ends up kissing Maomao on her neck before smoothly exiting the scene. Smoooooth.
  • Mad Scientist: A downplayed herbalist example, but Maomao only loses her professional cool when getting to work with herbs and poisons. As a child she exposed herself to as many poisons and toxins she could for experimentation.
  • My Greatest Failure: Honey may contain contaminants (such as flower toxins) that are dangerous to babies, but not adults. Fengming didn't learn this fact until years after she had killed Ah-Duo's child with it.
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Maomao looks positively ecstatic when she works as a food taster and realizes that something she's eaten is poisoned.
  • Oblivious to His Own Description: At the start of Volume 3, Maomao and Hongniang discover a stray kitten in the rear palace, which they take with them to the quack to care for. After a while, Jinshi and Gaoshun come visit, and Jinshi wonders why people love little kittens so much. When Maomao begins to explain, she remarkably manages to describe cats in a way that she would fit this description too. Jinshi agrees with her and admits that he can see the appeal of cats.
  • Pair the Smart Ones: Downplayed. While both Jinshi and Maomao are intelligent, they're more sharp and perceptive than book smart.
  • Poor Communication Kills:
    • In Volume 1, Maomao receives several hair sticks at the garden party, which can be used to arrange a meeting with someone's suitor to leave the court temporarily. Maomao arranges a deal with Lihaku for which she has to pay dearly. However, she also received a hair stick from Jinshi. If Maomao had waited a bit longer or talked to Jinshi first, he could have gotten her out without any recompense. Although at the end of Volume 1, he does pay off her debts and makes her work for him again.
    • At the end of Volume 1, the culprit of the poisoning attempt at the garden party confesses and is punished. The punishment extends to her family and all people that have done business with said family. Maomao's kidnappers did business with the family, so Jinshi has the choice to dismiss Maomao or make any evidence that she is connected to the poisoner disappear. When Jinshi asks Maomao what she wants to do, Maomao tells him that she would do any work she is asked to do, be it menial labor or testing food for poison, indirectly saying that she does not want to leave. Jinshi completely reads her wrong and thinks she wants to go home (where Maomao knows she might be forced to sell her body) and dismisses her... with a generous severance pay. He immediately comes to regret this and later learns that Maomao in fact did not want to leave at all. Jinshi then decides to pay off her debts and reemploy her.
  • Reluctant Ruler: Jinshi wants to avoid becoming emperor at all costs, which is why he hopes for one of the consorts to bear an heir. The issue is that he is the emperor’s oldest son, so technically he will always be first in line. He doesn’t know this, however, and it’s not clear what is planned for him.
  • Rejection Affection: Poor Jinshi. How has he not given up yet?
  • Resigned to the Call: Maomao is all too aware of her low status to refuse. So when the Emperor asks her to cure Lihua in Volume 1, or whenever Jinshi calls her up as a detective, she accepts with resignation.
  • Royal Inbreeding: In Volume 3, Maomao helps the Emperor find the right path for the Shrine of the Choosing. As she finds out, the test is easily solvable for someone who is colorblind. This is a trait that Wang Mu's descendants wanted to preserve, which is why she suspects they kept inbreeding to keep their bloodline pure. However, Maomao also suspects that the inbreeding is the reason the previous Emperor's older siblings all died early.
  • Royally Screwed Up: Specifically, the previous emperor. The previous emperor was a pedophile because he was literally afraid of adult women. This was caused by his overbearing mother, who frightened him both as a child and adult. But the current emperor had to be born somehow, meaning the Empress Dowager was a child when she gave birth. So, yuck.
  • The Nicknamer: Maomao has little patience for anything that isn't poisonous, so she tends to refer to people by titles of convenience in her head. Her father, Lakan, is consistently "the strategist," "the freak," or "the fox," while the kindly but incompetent chief physician of the Rear Palace is always called "the quack doctor." At one point she's surprised to learn his name, then immediately dismisses it and resolves to continue calling him a quack.
  • The Scapegoat: In Volume 3, Lo-en is temporarily used as one by Basen, to mislead the real assassin after the assassination attempt against Ka Zuigetsu.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Maomao. The first time Jinshi barely recognises her. He gets better.
  • Standard Royal Court: Nobles, servants, consorts, eunuchs...The whole she-bang.
  • Switched at Birth: Jinshi and the imperial brother. Meaning, it was the imperial brother who died from the poisoning, not the crown prince. And Jinshi doesn't know this. So when he inevitably discovers that his father is his grandfather, his mother is his grandmother and his brother is his father...well, it'll be a very awkward family dinner.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink:
    • When Consort Gyokuyou was pregnant with her first child, she escaped two poisoning attempts on her, though this led to her dismissing more than half of her staff. She employs Maomao at the start of the story, as thanks for saving Lingli's life from the poisonous face powder.
    • During the spring garden party in Volume 1, Maomao tests the soup intended for Gyokuyou and discovers poison. The actual intended recipient was Consort Lishu, though. Lishu's poison tester switched Lishu's food with Gyokuyou's to embarrass her mistress, which ends up saving her life.
    • Because of his illness, Kounen did not notice the copious amount of salt poured into his drink and subsequently died.
    • After Maomao temporarily returns to the pleasure district in Volume 1, a courtesan and her guest seemingly are involved in a double-suicide. However, Maomao discovers that the courtesan tried to murder her guest by making him drink wine with tobacco.
    • In Volume 2, Maomao challenges Lakan to a game of shogi. The loser has to drink a cup of sake, but three of the cups have something mixed in, with Maomao noting that drinking too much is poison. In truth, she mixed salt and sugar in the cups to make the alcohol kick in earlier. Since she knew Lakan Can't Hold His Liquor, she only had to make him drink one cup to make him go out drunk and forfeit the match. Lakan likely knew what she intended though and let her do as she pleased.
  • Treachery Cover Up: In Volume 3, Lihua merely dismisses her chief lady-in-waiting Shin and bans her from the rear palace on the grounds of being disrespecting, for which she slaps Shin. The consequences would have been far more dire if Shin had been arrested for trying to make Lihua abort, for both Shin and her immediate family.
  • Wacky Parent, Serious Child: Maomao and Lakan.
  • What Does She See in Him?: Other women seethe in jealousy and are bewildered by Jinshi's attraction to Maomao. Maomao doesn't get it either.
  • Wicked Stepmother: In volume 4, Suirei's stepmother appears, who regularly beats her and has apparently in the past confined her in a tiny room filled with hundreds of snakes and poisonous insects.
  • Will They or Won't They?: Jinshi and Maomao.

Alternative Title(s): Kusuriya No Hitorigoto