Aug 7, 2011
Apothecarius Argentum tries to cleverly disguise itself as a shoujo. But it’s not fooling me. It might fool some at first with it’s girly art and handsome male lead. But …you see, shoujos are SUPPOSED to have stereotypical characters. They’re SUPPOSED to have a female lead who’s either clumsy and fretting, or constantly chipper. The male lead is grouchy and/or blunt, or utterly suave and charming. The lead girl is SUPPOSED to constantly revel in angst, and wonder how she feels about her love interest, and how he feels about her. The storylines are SUPPOSED to be
about short-term goals like...making edible chocolates for Valentine’s day. Beloved characters are NOT supposed to die. There should NOT be discussions of controversial topics (like, say, abortion). All the important characters SHOULD be under the age of 30. Everything SHOULD be black and white and obvious.
But this series doesn’t want to do that. It revels in complex characters, perplexing situations, thwarting the romance between our two leads, and constantly turning the story setting completely upside down. Not to mention *gasp* politics! It keeps reminding you that real life is tough, and miracles rarely happen. What usually happens is what you wish didn’t, but, too bad, that’s the way reality is. If you like your shoujo the way it’s SUPPOSED to be, stay far and clear of this series! You’re warned. Don’t you dare come crying to me later.
The setting is in an 18th-century-European-like country by the name of Beazol. There’s no magic, no fantasy. Our male lead is a fellow by the name of Argent. Why “Argent”? Well, of course you all know that the word argent is the Latin root for “silver,” which fits him because his hair is white. No, the white hair is not simply a trope to make him look more handsome. It’s because when he was enslaved as a little child, he was gradually fed poisons until he became immune to them (remind you of Dokuhime?). One side effect was that his hair turned white. He was then sold to the king of Beazol to serve as a poison-taster for the king's only child, Princess Primula. Being a slave, he was not allowed to get too friendly with her. And physical contact was absolutely forbidden because his entire body was saturated in poison, and a touch from him could do harm or even kill.
Princess Primula is our female lead. She’s fond of food and swordfighting, and wants very much to be friends with Argent. When the story starts, he is a free adult, and working outside of the palace as an apothecary. That job is perfect for him, because of his unfortunate familiarity with the qualities of various plants, and his immunity to any poisons they might have in them. He is recalled from his hut in the woods to become the official court apothecary, and tend to the illnesses of those in and outside of the palace.
That’s how the story starts. As I warned, the status quo never stays status for very long. Argent constantly goes in and out of grace with the king. His location of work keeps changing. And the romance. Ah, the romance.
The oft-hidden core of the story is the potential romance between Argent and Primula. We, as the reader, know that each party totally digs the other. But, they both acknowledge the two little problems of class difference, and not being able to make skin contact. Though the first problem could potentially be hurdled the second...the second will be a sticky wicket. Trying to have kids would probably mean death for Primula. So, what to do? Primula will have to marry at some point, as the sole heir to the throne. I don’t want to hand out any spoilers regarding what happens along their bumpy road of romance. I can only assure you that there are lots of ups and downs. And things that will make you want to wring your hands in frustration at the unfairness of life in this world.
There’s also the politics. Being a ruler, and holding onto the throne, means that you have to do a lot of harmful, hateful things. Case in point: the king of Beazol. At some times, he seems like a kindly, wise, fatherly king. At others, he seems like a bloodthirsty murderer. Argent’s doings sometimes go against proper politics, thus making him a persona non grata. Primula has to take on the responsibilities of a ruler, and fulfil the needs and expectations of her people, even if that is difficult or distasteful to her.
And then there's the pharmacy business. First off, mithridatism (becoming immune to poisons) is not necessarily as effective in real life as it is in the story. But the purposes of the plants which Argent works with, for the most part, seem fairly accurate (by the way, these are real plants, not fantasy-world plants). There are extra pages at the end of each volume, with facts about the uses of various plants. But the author continually cautions you not to go medicating yourself with them! Leave that business to Argent and other experts. So if you have a liking for plants and their uses, you might find this interesting.
Speaking of the extra pages, in some volumes (all?) there is a running extra gag story, about “Rice-bran Argent” and all the exploits of “Rice-bran Argent.” It’s funny. Read it.
As for characters, our two leads are loveable, if imperfect. Primula is hasty and often is inconsiderate as a pampered palace kid. But she earnestly wants to see the people of Beazol happy. And to seduce Argent. She devises ways to get him close to her. Which he keeps parrying, knowing that his touch is harmful. While he understands he must repect her, the king, and all the members of the court as people in a high position, at the same time he wrestles with his pride as a human, and as a man. He is not simply namby-pamby and perfect. He will fight and brawl and argue, and think of ways to keep his freedom and maybe, just maybe, get a shot at romance.
But Argent and Primula are not the only important characters. There’s quite a wide cast. Some are friends, some are traitors. Most live, some die. But most are fairly complicated. They don’t just behave predictably. After all, they live in a complicated world, and that means that complicated decisions have to be made, and unfortunate factors considered. I am trying as hard as possible to explain without giving away any spoilers, because the political moves and upheavals constitute some of the most shocking parts of the storyline. And you like to be shocked, right?
Now to the issue of maturity. For perhaps the first volume or so, it seems that it’s suitable for 10-year-olds. After all, what little violence there is isn’t particularly graphic, and the poison symptoms look like a mild case of chocking. You ask, “Why did CMX [the US publisher] rate it for older teens?” Well, a little later in the story, we tackle some darker themes (like killing kids for political reasons). And even later, we get full and fairly frank discussions regarding sex. It’s not graphic, but it’s talked about a good bit (the story includes prostitutes, abortion, and issues regarding the inconveniences of Argent and others like him).
The art was a bit annoying to me at first. I admit to being picky about art. It was a style I haven’t seen a lot, which looks more firm than fluffy. And all the characters seem to have rather strong jaws (Primula could totally look like a boy if she dressed like one). And it’s somewhat remarkable for not having much in the way of sparkly or flowery screentone...but ah, silly me, I forgot for a moment that this is only a FAKE shoujo.
Now, now, I don’t mean you to take this as a shoujo-bash, if you like shoujo. Where did I say shoujo is bad or unlikeable? Its genre exists for a purpose, and there is lots of it out there because....lots of people like it and read it! And I understand that not all shoujos are the same...some are dark and dramatic, unlike the norm. But those are exceptions to the big class people think of when they think "shoujo." If you’re looking for a cute and happy story, this is NOT it. I’ve seen lots of people comment on this series to express their dissatisfaction at how it’s “Not like shoujo.”
My personal yakkity yak: I really, really like this series. I'm always on the lookout for the unconventional, and the genre-bending. I only discovered this series by browsing through my library catalog, starting with the manga that began with "A." The first volume felt a little bland, but Argent's intriguing situation was what made me try out more...and then I realized that I was reading a fairly unusual series, placed in a fairly complex and well-thought-out world. I always like it when the world in the story feels three-dimensional, and that it extends beyond the frames on the pages. I like it when these are characters I can believe in, and expect to be surprised by, not bound by stereotypical expectations. My rating for the series slowly rose from 7, to 8, and finally 9. While I don't expect it to get brilliant or beloved enough for a 10, it has given me thorough satisfaction, and holds high re-read potential.
If you like genres besides shoujo, and keep in mind that this is different, I do recommend you try it. With all my glowing comments on how this is “Not like shoujo,” I don’t mean that this has any sort of thriller-esque or intrigue-riddled tale for the most discerning of tastes. In fact the pace is rather slow. As slow as the transport of the era. It’s simply a political-historical-drama-romance with some sweet and sour twists. But, ah, how enjoyable I found it to be.
What did you think of this review?