It was a happy day in my house when I realized I had two volumes of Story of Saiunkoku stacked up to read. This manga featuring a heroine who is dedicated to her dream of becoming a civil servant and the quirky men who surround her is one of my favorite current series. I’ve seen a bit of the anime adaptation of this series, so these early volumes have a feeling of pleasant nostalgia as I see characters I’m already familiar with in manga form.
As the third volume opens Shurei has left her position as royal consort and is back to her old life with her family, worrying about repairing her house and studying again for the civil service exam that she’s unable to take because she’s a woman. The emperor Ryuki sends her letters signed “Lord Anonymous” every day, along with ridiculous presents like buckets of flowers, a giant block of ice, and far too many hard boiled eggs. It is summer, the season when Shurei’s mother died. Shurei doesn’t respond to the Emperor’s overtures, thinking “If I get too worked up I’ll just overheat myself in this weather. It’s a waste of energy and of sweat…which means a waste of household resources!” Shurei stumbles across a scruffy bearded man who has collapsed near her house. She invites him inside for a meal, and when he exhibits superior staff-fighting skills when subduing an errant chicken, Seiran recognizes him as a man named Ensei. Ensei and Seiran have the type of bickering relationship that I think is only exhibited by people who’ve been through a war together. Ensei decides to stick around for awhile. Shurei gets a taste of the civil servant’s life when she’s given the opportunity to work for the Minister of the Treasury in the Outer Palace. She has to masquerade as a boy, but she’s delighted to be given the opportunity to work even if it is only temporary.
Shurei’s new boss is the incredibly strict Minister Ko, who always wears an elaborate mask whenever he is in the presence of other people. Ryuki continues to be an intriguing mixture of innocence and cleverness. While he’s imagining the horror of Shurei marrying Seiran, he is actually working hard to change the laws in his country that limit Shurei’s opportunities. His enthusiasm might derail the entire process. Shurei struggles through the summer month, dealing with her fears of thunderstorms that trigger memories of the day her mother died. Ensei’s lighthearted personality goes a long way in making sure she doesn’t get too depressed. One of the reasons why I like this series so much is that even though it might sound like a typical reverse harem scenario, Story of Saiunkoku has so much depth. The idea of romance is a burden more than anything else to Shurei, because she’s so focused on achieving her goals. While she’s surrounded by cute men who want to support her, they all have their own concerns as well as their own friendships to deal with.
There’s some intrigue and action as Ensei’s true identity is revealed. Ensei and Shurei take refuge from bandits in the house of a nobleman who is almost distractingly beautiful. They are aiding a pair of Sa bandit children who attempted to rob the treasury earlier. Their mysterious benefactor doesn’t seem to mind being invaded by sudden house guests, and Shurei notices that his hair and mannerisms seem a little familiar. Ryuki shows up at Shurei’s house for a “Midnight Tryst” only to find out that she’s gone somewhere with the mysterious Ensei. Ryuki, Seiran, Koyu, and Shuei decide to crash the party too, since Ensei is still being targeted for attack.
I like that there are so many side stories that aren’t centered on the heroine. We get a glimpse of the possibility of romance for Shurei’s father as he spends time talking to a noblewoman who is willing to drink his horrible tea in order to converse with him. The relationship between Shurei’s uncle and Minister Ko has hints of a long shared past, and Ensei undergoes a transformation that isn’t only confined to his physical appearance when he shaves off his beard and decides to start applying himself to his work. Even Shurei’s opportunity to take the civil service exam isn’t only for her, as Koyu informs her that she has to pass with extremely high marks in order to be an example that will help other women follow in her footsteps. One of the things I like about the adaptation is the way so many of the characters have a distinctive way of speaking. Ryuki’s speech is the most formal, as you would expect from his position as emperor. The ragamuffin Sa bandit children speak in grand excited tones, as though their actions and thoughts are the most important and dramatic things in the world.
These volumes were very satisfying, and I’m looking forward to reading more. This is the type of series that I know I’ll keep on my shelves for a long time because I know I’ll enjoy reading it.
Review copy of Volume 4 provided by the publisher.