art by Kairi Yura; story by Sai Yukino; adapted by Su Mon Han
published by Viz; $9.99 US
I’m not normally a fan of historical shojo, because I don’t have the jones for the costumes that make up part of the appeal, but this series won me over due to its humor and unusual characters and premise. It’s an impressive story with surprising depth.
Shurei Hong is a well-born young lady who’s seen struggles, because her family has the name and class rank but not much wealth. As a result, she’s well-educated, considerate of others, hard-working (because, like anyone, she hates being poor), and dreams of becoming a civil servant to help make her country, Saiunkoku, better for all its citizens. Women aren’t allowed in the profession, though, so when a court official offers her an alternate, well-paying job, she accepts.
Her new role is to become the royal consort for the recently ascended Emperor Ryuki. He’s not interested in his title or responsibilities, and already rumors are spreading about his desire to spend the night with other men. Shurei’s knowledge of governance and cleverness will help encourage him to live up to his role, while her good heart, courtly skills, and attractiveness will prevent the latter. She’s already familiar with etiquette due to her father’s role as court archivist, plus she’s aided by a loyal servant, the mysterious (and gorgeous) Seiran. No other well-bred girl has her unique combination of willpower, dedication, and experience that will allow her to succeed in this mission, for the good of the country.
Even though this is set in a long-ago fantasy kingdom, the personalities are strong and modern. Shurei’s goals are unusual, but understandable, given her temperament and background. She’s not afraid to speak up or struggle for what she believes in, and everyone values her unique strengths, which is refreshing. She’s a competent teacher, both professionally and in her personal interactions. Her difficult life has given her sympathy for all kinds of people and a bemused tolerance for the rich and wasteful court existence. She wants to help the emperor “build a country where no one would go hungry.”
The dialogue is amusing in its detail of her life, whether she’s worried about patching the roof or later, reassuring a young servant girl. Perhaps due to this manga’s origin as a novel adaptation, the text is quite accomplished. I found myself wanting chapters to go on and on, because I wanted to spend so much more time with these people, so elegantly but realistically drawn. Shurei’s hairstyles, especially, astound me in their ornate design of looped hair and decorations.
There are plenty of surprises and reversals, too. People scheme (in a well-meaning way), only for others to find them out. Shurei seems mature, until it comes to the physical side of her interactions with Ryuki, which adds to her charm, seeing her so flustered. In addition to the two beautiful men I’ve mentioned so far, there are two more to fill out the pretty pictures: an instructor and the emperor’s womanizing bodyguard.
By the second book, the two young people have established a fragile understanding, one damaged when Shurei realizes that Ryuki knows a lot more than he lets on. There’s also more intrigue, as someone is attempting to poison Shurei, and the men search to find out who’s responsible while keeping her safe. In contrast to the conversation of the first book, this volume has more adventure, swordplay, threats, and revelations. It’s less her story, more about the country and its tragic history.
This outstanding series is a wonderful read, regardless of whether one typically seeks out historicals, with a heroine anyone can appreciate . (The publisher provided review copies.)