*The Story of Saiunkoku Books 1 & 2 — Recommended

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.)

6 Comments

  1. I loved volume one volume two boerd me to tears (too much text)but the charcterization was still good though.

  2. [...] Six of Gingacho, with just a pinch of the “I want to be a civil servant” theme of The Story of Saiunkoku (only modern-day) — then this is a good choice for you to seek [...]

  3. [...] completing her goal in the earlier books, Shurei has returned home, but the emperor Ryuki continues to pursue her, long distance, with [...]

  4. [...] or even just a scene of amusing banter. It’s a wonderful escapist read, with its setting in historical fantasy and its relatable modern [...]

  5. [...] gears, if I’m to wallow in character detail, I’d much rather do so in this historical shojo. For some reason, I can keep the various pretty boys here separate much more easily than I can the [...]

  6. [...] I can’t tell all the characters apart visually, so I’m not sure who the young man is, the one pondering whether he should stay with his uncaring master or strike out on his own. He resembles the emperor, but I know that’s not right. I’d like to see more of the emperor, actually, since his relationship with Shurei is what first attracted me to this series. [...]

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