The past is never truly past, something Maomao is aware of having grown up in a brothel where courtesans spend years to pay off debts, but the future is a fluid thing regardless. As she returns to help consort Gyokuyou with her latest pregnancy (and trying to ward off anything that might hurt mother and child, or even reveal the situation) Maomao accidentally ends up being pulled deeper into the recent past of the rear palace as well. From deciphering some of the last actions of the previous emperor, to finally unraveling what happened with a missing corpse a few volumes back, at this point Maomao will never truly be able to leave the rear palace behind because the two are far too entangled, and in some ways were before she was ever born.
It’s a minor detail in the grand scope of things, but I was amused to discover that The Apothecary Diaries isn’t set in the far-off, distant past like I had assumed but much closer to modern times (or at least when compared to our own history, since this is clearly not our world). When foreign, female ambassadors come to visit the emperor (clearly not everything is comparable to our world), the descriptions of their dress sounds quite a bit like the hoop skirts or similarly structured fashion in parts of Europe and the Americas in the mid-1800s, although a firearm introduced later in the volume sounds a bit older than that, as it’s described as being just one step more sophisticated than a flintlock. Further on, as Maomao puts together all of the pieces regarding her adoptive father’s relationship with the rear palace, we learn that he even went abroad to study medicine and was able to apply some of his knowledge, a c-section, on the dowager empress (also explaining why someone from a noble family like Maomao’s was made a eunuch, “men” aren’t allowed in the rear palace after all). Piecing that together with what Maomao had already suspected, that he was let go when the current emperor’s son with former consort Ah Duo died, it seems like the empire just narrowly escaped some turbulent times of succession, especially given how unstable the former emperor and former dowager empress were.
Not that the empire is safe right now — with volume 3 largely focusing on past events affecting current ones (such as Maomao being put in charge of putting together a performance for the ambassadors, a dance just like one seen by their predecessors which has become the stuff of legends in their home country), volume 4 involves Maomao being kidnapped and entangled in a long-expected coup attempt. While these volumes can be rather winding anyway, often it takes until the very end of a novel (if not even longer) for all the little mysteries Maomao has encountered to intertwine, I found parts of volume 4 to be the slowest to date, partially because Maomao’s kidnapping isn’t a quick jaunt of a few days before being “rescued.” Part of that is due to the nature of where Maomao physically ends up and the group she ends up with, it doesn’t give her much if any real chances at escaping, but part of it is Maomao’s general indifference to doing hard work if passively going along won’t be much worse. It’s been a character trait of hers all along but this is the only time I’ve been a bit exasperated at it.
Even though Maomao is away from the rear palace for some time, the story itself never leaves as Jinshi continues to serve as a secondary deuteragonist and several things about his own history are revealed. Or rather, fan theories are confirmed and Maomao is outright told the truth; again she was perfectly capable at putting together the pieces but it was easier to be indifferent and not ponder too much why she was even attending to Jinshi as he travels on distant outings in disguise. Maomao does have to start confronting those thoughts however after discovering in volume 3 that Jinshi has “an average sized frog” and she’s horrified at the implication of an intact man living within the rear palace and how not only he but all of his attendants, including her, would be killed if the emperor ever found out about it (Maomao does there and then silently vows that if “frog” was ever discovered that she’d do the deed and castrate Jinshi herself to save all their skins which is still making me laugh several months later).
For all my grumblings about slower-than-I’d-enjoy plotting, I still immensely enjoyed these two volumes and can’t wait to dive into volume 5 after the massive shake-up at the end of volume 4. I expect more poisons, more intrigue, and even more work for Maomao in the near future!