Story of Saiunkoku 6

May 10, 2013

Kairi Yura / Sai Yukino – Viz – 2012 – 9 volumes

I do like this series. I like the art, the setting in ancient China, and I love the fact that the goal is for Shurei to become a civil servant, a difficult thing since no woman can be one. It actually sidelines the romance with the prince in order to achieve this goal, which is unheard of in shoujo manga. But I have a bad habit of reading the same volume I just finished when I pick this series up, so I’m a few volumes behind. Part of this is because many of the chapters deal with side stories, and all of them include a huge cast of characters I can’t be bothered to remember. My ardor for this series has cooled, but I’m going to try to read the last several volumes straight through and see if I can’t remember why I liked it.

This volume starts off on a bad foot, in the middle of a story about a character with multiple personalities from an outside city getting his token for the civil servant exam stolen, and Shurei and company have to have a big fight to get it back. In addition to the main set of men who usually look after Shurei (who all look the same to me, and don’t have distinct enough roles in the story anymore for me to tell apart), there’s an underworld set that’s helping her through this trial, none of whom are likely to factor into the story again. And if they do, it’s going to be with a side story like this that has no real bearing on the plot.

But this chapter does introduce a character that proves to be important for the second half, and is a young boy to boot, so I can tell him apart from everyone else. The second half of the book find he and Shurei in the same boat during their trial period as civil servants, as the others who passed the exam, and the instructors, do not want women and children joining their ranks. They’re forced to clean and do more paperwork than any of the other candidates. This part of the book was more enjoyable, especially seeing Shurei’s resolve to deal with it all in order to pursue her dream. But it was hard for me to believe all of her “friends” just sat back and let this happen as a character building exercise. It was a pretty intense hazing. But the clouds are breaking in the last chapter, so maybe the next volume will be cheerier.

On one hand, I hate to say this was a slow volume, because the post-exam story was exactly the plot of the series. But I was so uninterested in the first half of the book that I couldn’t really get into it. Let me see if volume 7 is any better for me.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.

Story of Saiunkoku 5

March 21, 2012

Kairi Yura / Sai Yukino – Viz – 2011 – 8+ volumes

This story is, if nothing else, not afraid to take its time. I do appreciate this, and I love fantasy manga that are content with a slow pace. World-building takes time, and it’s something that needs to be done right in the very best series.

Having said that, this volume opens with a story about Shurei being ill, where all the characters convene to dote on her and swap memories. I suppose after all the excitement of last volume, a break is necessary. But the series already has so much of this mixed in with the regular stories that a whole chapter where absolutely nothing happens feels quite excessive.

And by the end of the volume, Shurei has still not taken the civil service exam. I was pretty disappointed with that. The story has set up something of a romance between Shurei and Ryuki, and as it stands now, not only is Shurei completely uninterested in Ryuki, there haven’t really been any opportunities for the two of them to get together, nor does it appear to be possible even if Shurei passes the exam. I’m not sure how this will be dealt with. Now, I don’t demand romance in everything, and I would be perfectly fine if this didn’t include it. But the first volume set this series up to be a fantasy romance, and I quite liked it. That element has been absent ever since, and I find that I’m missing it. Worse still, it seems like it’s not coming back. Except… there are still signs, like the fact Ryuki dotes on Shurei. Either do it or don’t, but I’m annoyed by the approach so far.

The storyline in this volume involves a mysterious boy named Eigetsu and the pleasure quarters in town. I really enjoyed these parts, especially Kocho, the head courtesan and overseer of the pleasure quarters. Shurei is acquainted with her through her job as a financial adviser for Kocho’s establishment, and Kocho is a woman who was born to take charge of situations. The storyline goes that Eigetsu, a young boy, wanders in from out of town and is brought to Kocho’s brothel. He doesn’t have any money on him, and Shurei endeavors to help him out. But it turns out that the boy may have a split personality, and may also have gotten on the bad side of a local gang that is now out to get him. Shurei’s harem of good-looking and well-positioned gentlemen step in to help her once she’s taken Eigetsu’s case, and Kocho’s no slouch in that department, either.

Maybe it’s the fact I took a break after so long, but I find I am less enamored with this series than I once was. Perhaps it’s the romance element I mentioned before, but I think another part of the problem is Shurei’s harem. They all appear in every story, and are always ready to help Shurei, either openly or in secret. It’s a little annoying, especially when Shurei’s being positioned as a strong female and a groundbreaker for women’s rights. Perhaps this volume is particularly unkind, too, but the stories like this, where Shurei can’t solve problems without the help of six powerful government officials, seem to override the whole “first female to take the civil service exam” thing. Kocho helps, and she stands on her own, but… I mean, I normally wouldn’t notice any feminist overtones like this, but I guess the harem really bothers me.

I feel bad putting down this book so much, but I really do like this series, and it’s disappointing to see a volume like this. Perhaps Eigetsu’s story is leading up to something exciting and related to Shurei’s quest next time (he’s almost certainly taking the civil service exam). I do hope that the focus turns back to Shurei and her goals in volume 6, because she, along with the wonderful setting, are what originally endeared me to the series.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.

Story of Saiunkoku 4

September 3, 2011

Kairi Yura / Sai Yukino – Viz – 2011 – 7+ volumes

This story continues on its way pleasantly, with the right balance of light plot movement and character development. It’s more of a… romance, I suppose, at this point than it is a fantasy series, since the setting is somewhat secondary compared to the characters. But the romance is fairly secondary at this point, too. Mostly, it’s just about the characters and their motivations, and I feel like I’ll never get tired of the little stories that keep unfolding. I’m not even annoyed by the ever-increasing cast, which is unusual for me.

There are a few bombshells dropped in this volume, so it’s not quite as it sounds when I say there’s light plot movement. The true identity of Ensei is revealed, and I was fairly surprised by it. He’s not at all who I thought he was, and I loved that the identity that was essentially the exact opposite of what I expected worked that well. I can’t say too much about this, since I’d spoil the volume, but I liked that he surreptitiously guided people into position all the way to the end of the volume, and the climax of his story was a lot of fun.

There’s also a lot more information on Kijin Ko, the Minister of Finance that Shurei has been working for. We get to see under the mask. I was wrong about this too, but in this case I’m a little disappointed since I feel the real reason he wears the mask is exaggerated for comic relief. Whatever. He’s an interesting guy, though, and I enjoyed all the political conversations he had with various characters here.

There’s also a little side story about Shurei and her mother, a side story about the two sons of an old friend of Shoka’s, more information about the new law allowing women to take the civil service exam, and yet another meandering story about the Emperor’s growing feelings for Shurei, and what he’s doing to try and win her over. All of these stories are interesting, and this is what I mean when I say the plot moves slowly. They’re all fairly important storylines, and it’s interesting that they all seem to resolve themselves in one way or another before the plot moves on to something else. I never found myself frustrated when the story focused too much on a side character rather than Shurei, though admittedly that’s because all the stories still involve Shurei. I think the origin of the series as a novel is most apparent here, but it’s interesting to me that the adaptation is well-written enough that all of this still comes across rather seamlessly, and with not a whole lot of talking heads, in the manga.

The huge cast doesn’t bother me as much as it normally does, but I do begin to forget character names after awhile (especially those of the Emperor’s two aides, I can never remember them), and I was beginning to get antsy when Shoka began talking about his old friend out of nowhere, then the story introduced his sons. They don’t really have much bearing on the plot, so I’m not quite sure why they were included at all. But they were still pretty charming, and I loved the way they eventually made the whole storyline here wrap around Shurei, so maybe they were necessary.

It felt like one of the novels “concluded” in the second-to-last chapter of this volume. The original novel series was 18 volumes long, and I’ve only noticed two of these “conclusions” so far. Are we really only at the beginning of the third novel, in terms of the plot of The Story of Saiunkoku? I’m definitely still interested in all that’s going on, but that… seems so long. And I almost feel like I might begin to lose my grasp on things if many more characters or complicated politics are introduced. That’s definitely its charm, and it makes me happy that I can still pick up volumes randomly and am able to jump right in, but… again, there’s only so much of that I can personally take.

But right now, this was another enjoyable volume, and I love that this is simultaneously an easy, enjoyable read, but also has a lot of “meat” on it in terms of plot. It’s definitely worth looking at if you like more substance to your shoujo manga, and I’m happy that it’s maintained its quality through the first four volumes.

But I do wonder: the “conclusion” to the first novel ended the first part of the story, which was essentially a romantic comedy. This story segment had a lot of character and setting development. I wonder if the next part will also be completely different, in terms of tone? I’m very curious.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.

Story of Saiunkoku 3

July 14, 2011

Kairi Yura / Sai Yukino – Viz – 2011 – 7+ volumes

This is very good, too, but in a different way (I’m covering a lot of manga that I liked tonight). The first two volumes were about even-headed Shurei coaching the Emperor and helping him through some difficult personal and political issues. In volume three, Shurei’s time as the Emperor’s partner is up, and she has no desire to go back to him. The Emperor himself is smitten, but the fact that Shurei currently has no interest in romance gave me slight pause, since I don’t know what to do with a shoujo series when there’s no romance. I mean, it’s shoujo law.

What is this book about then, if not romance? Well, Shurei studies a lot, which is unusual for a woman. She’s also familiar with a lot of the palace officials after her stay as the Emperor’s partner, and during a heat wave that takes out a lot of civil service staff, one of the top palace officials offers her a job as a page for the treasury department. She is utterly thrilled at the opportunity, and dresses as a boy in order to get closer to the workings of the government. Turns out her dream is to be a civil servant, and most of the story is about how the government is in something of an upheval due to the fact women can’t take the civil service exam, and Shurei coming to terms with the fact that she can’t be one.

Of course, the head of the treasury department is an extremely strict person who wears an iron mask and is totally a woman. I’m not sure when the story is going to reveal this, so it’s not really a spoiler, but my best guess. I know what I’m talking about, though.

Character relations are deepening. There is the interaction between Shurei and Seiran, which isn’t quite romance, but watching the two of them together is very sweet, especially the way Seiran protects her. Ryuki, the Emperor, is still around, although he’s more of a side character and… almost comic relief through this volume. He and Shurei have no reason to interact, and the main love interest established in the first two volumes looks very unlikely… again, I’m not sure how I feel about that, especially since I’m very fond of Ryuki. But if it avoided that shoujo trap, I think I may like this series more in the end. There’s also Shurei’s father, and a new character that seems to have ties to Seiran. And let’s not forget the rather mysterious head of the treasury department, because I think all the interaction between that person and Shurei will be very important next time around.

This is based on a (rather long) light novel series, so I can almost see the 2-volumes-per-novel structure at work. I like it so far, and am really looking forward to the character-driven and somewhat slow paced story. I like it a lot. I always hope that it can be a replacement for my beloved Apothecarius Argentum, another light fantasy and very shoujo-y series. It’s not just yet, but it took me several volumes to get into Apothecarius Argentum too. I’m hoping I get just as thoroughly addicted to this.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.

Story of Saiunkoku 2

April 16, 2011

Sai Yukino / Kairi Yura – Viz – 2011 – 7+ volumes

This is another series based on a series of light novels (the other I looked at today was Toradora), and another really wonderful adaptation. I’ve had really good luck with light novels (Haruhi Suzumiya, Book Girl) and their adaptations (both this and Toradora are good) lately, and it makes me want to pick up more. A shame that there’s not more of a market for them in English.

I liked the first volume of this, but the second confirms that this is well on its way to filling the Apothecarius Argentum-sized hole in my fantasy-loving heart. It’s a light fantasy series about a couple that seems to slowly get together, one member of the couple is completely clueless while the other is smitten. Coddled rulers that are determined to do well play a role in both, and both have a really wonderful sense of setting and history, something that’s either glossed over or told in excruciating, boring, and un-relevant detail. So far, the biggest sin of The Story of Saiunkoku is that the older characters are almost indistinguishable from one another. One of the main plot points was the treachery among the older advisers, but I couldn’t tell one from another. This is partially intentional, and admittedly which adviser did what isn’t that important, but it looks like it might have a bearing on the story later.

Shurei and Ryuki only became more likable in this volume. Emperor Ryuki comes clean about some of the techniques he uses to disguise his wits, and Shurei is angry for wasting so much time tutoring him. Ryuki is devastated and completely smitten with Shurei (who still thinks he prefers men, another lie Ryuki tells about himself). While the two are trying to sort that out, the attempts on Shurei’s life get more serious, and she is eventually kidnapped as part of a plot to possibly overthrow the Emperor and put his estranged brother on the throne. There are several parts to the rescue, all of which are politically and emotionally complex, and all of it rings surprisingly true for being only the second volume of a series.

I am impressed that all the plot detail from the novel is translating so well into comic form. It can be a little wordy, and as I said, parts of the conspiracy were lost on me since I couldn’t tell the old men apart, but it comes across pretty well. The backstory and mythology for the story are pretty detailed too, and I had unfortunately forgotten most of it since reading volume one. I remembered all the important details within a few pages though, and most of the rest came to me before I was finished. I do wish there had been a summary page at the beginning of the book, though.

A fantasy series like this needs time to be truly addictive, but I like what I’ve seen so far. The characters are good, the setting is detailed, the politics aren’t overly complicated, and everything is coming across very well. Volume two leaves off on an unusually final stopping point, but the romance between Shurei and Ryuki is far from over. This has all the makings of exactly what I love in fantasy, and I’m very much looking forward to future volumes.

Story of Saiunkoku 1

October 15, 2010

Kairi Yura / Sai Yukino – Viz – 2010 – 6+ volumes

It’s a shame to not support something like this when it appears. We so rarely see feudal-type stories, and there’s no reason in the world not to get on board with a period romance like this. Of course, I’ve passed over feudal stories in the past (Kaze Hikaru, Tail of the Moon), but this one reminded me a lot of Apothecarius Argentum, with its fantasy kingdom and its own set of politics, so I wanted to try it.

It’s a shame I have Apothecarius Argentum to compare it to, because that series comes out on top. Saiunkoku isn’t bad so far, but it falls into several easy traps for light fantasy like this. There are info dumps explaining the history of the country, and a lot of details about politics, the characters and their lives are told rather than shown. I don’t really blame it for this, since it’s common to have a volume or two of info-dump exposition, but I always like to see a little more finesse.

Apothecarius Argentum also had a smidge more sensitivity and likable characters, but this is only the first volume of Saiunkoku, and I didn’t much like Argentum after one volume.

Basically, there is a kingdom with legendary warriors all named after colors. Any family with a color in their last name is descended from these warriors, and thus treated as nobility. The main character, Shurei, is from the second rank of these warriors, and yet her family lives in abject poverty. Thus, she takes one of the Emperor’s advisers up on an offer to become the Royal Consort for a sum of money for her family. The advisers hope that a well-rounded girl like Shurei, both a noble and a girl who knows a lot about the country from living among its people, can influence the Emperor in a positive way. Shurei enters the palace, hoping to gently guide the Emperor onto a path where he governs the country fairly.

Romantically, Shurei seems enamored with a young palace guard that lives with her and her father. As far as the Emperor is concerned, Shurei doesn’t expect to carry out her official consort duties since there are rumors that the Emperor prefers men.

When the Emperor appears, he is far from the spoiled rich kid shirking his duties that you would expect. He was abused as a child, and keeps to himself. He doesn’t govern the country because he wants to flee. As the last in line among five brothers, he never expected the position and doesn’t want it. He merely hides, rather than acting out against his advisers. He also has strange quirks that turn endearing, like insisting on sleeping in the same bed as Shurei due to nightmares.

There are a lot of politics, and a lot of mysterious pasts and future character relationships to explore. So far, the characters are likable, the kingdom is something of a blank slate and could go different places, and I’m looking forward to filling in some of the blanks. It’s an interesting start with many possible places it could go. I’m partial to this type of series, and with such a nice beginning, I’m looking forward to the future volumes.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.