Frustrated by laws barring women from taking part in government, civic-minded Shurei Hong resigns herself to teaching the local youngsters and picking up whatever odd jobs she can to support herself, her archivist father, and their faithful retainer. So when an imperial adviser suddenly shows up and offers her 500 gold ryo for her assistance in an urgent matter of state, Shurei eagerly accepts. All she need do is be temporary consort to the reluctant emperor and turn him into a proper ruler. Wary but unfazed, Shurei is thrilled at the opportunity to serve her country and provide for her family at the same time; and since her short-term husband is rumored to prefer the company of men, she can get right to work on reforming and educating her pupil without the awkwardness of other wifely responsibilities. But she soon finds the reclusive young sovereign is anything but the sheltered, selfish, ignorant layabout she has imagined, and the pair’s growing influence over one another will alter not only their own paths but that of the entire nation.
Adapted from Yukino’s series of eighteen light novels (also illustrated by Yura), this ongoing manga’s visual aesthetic is greatly inspired by the art and culture of ancient China, giving the imaginary country of the title substance and an established feel while adding a touch of personality to the appealing, clean-lined, standard shojo-style artwork. With so much source material, it’s no surprise that there’s a lot to take in here, but the background history is presented in manageable snippets as it becomes relevant to the plot, and the many characters’ first appearances are accompanied by descriptive name plates. You may, however, still want to take notes, especially in the first volume where names and faces and official titles are introduced at speed. A who’s-who guide at the beginning of each volume would have been a great help here, since relying on hair-color and -style to distinguish among a host of new, similarly-named, equally attractive (and mostly male) characters until you get to know them can be a challenge.
Initial confusion aside, a number of those characters are what keep you reading. Resourceful, forthright Shurei’s idealistic focus on excelling in the arena of public service rather than the usual shojo goals of fame, fortune, or romance is refreshing, though it would be nice to see her do more than just react to choices other people give her. The supporting cast all have their own histories, mysteries, and quirks, some more developed and original than others. But for me the most compelling personality so far is the emperor, Ryuki Shi, whose gentle, intellectually capable, yet emotionally naive nature unconsciously disarms and charms. A worldly-wise innocent combining cool and clown, strength and fragility, Ryuki’s complexity surprises the reader as much as it does those around him. Even in pursuit of his own desires, he somehow manages to be utterly selfless, and his earnest, fumbling attempts to win his preoccupied beloved’s heart without putting his happiness before hers elicit giggles, sighs, and encouragement from the sidelines.
Along with a leisurely-paced romance, the story offers a mix of drama and humor as political intrigue, secret identities, and traumatic pasts contrast with good natured teasing, silly situational comedy, and bemused internal observations. Legal bargaining, brief bouts of action, and as-yet-only-hinted-at elements of fantasy further broaden appeal, but the failure to keep to a core theme can make the series feel like it’s trying to be too many things at once.
The Story of Saiunkoku is a light, entertaining, slightly all-over-the-map read that requires some concentration to hold onto the particulars. The so-far minimal violence, with poisons and blades predominating, has been in one instance lethal but not graphic. Despite depicting no more than a few stolen kisses, nineteen-year-old Ryuki’s acknowledged past physical relationships with both sexes, and his brief marriage to and subsequent courtship of the few-years-younger Shurei, make this series most suitable for teens who like practical heroines surrounded by pretty boys and a little thoughtfulness and smirking to go with their ornate costumes and social reform.
The original story was also adapted into a 2-season, 58-episode anime series, with only the first, now-out-of-print season making it into English before Geneon folded and Funimation’s rescue license expired.
The Story of Saiunkoku, vols. 1-4
by Sai Yukino
Art by Kairi Yura
Vol. 1 ISBN: 1421538342
Vol. 2 ISBN: 1421538350
Vol. 3 ISBN: 1421538369
Vol. 4 ISBN: 1421538377
Viz Media, 2010-2011
Publisher Suggested Rating: T (13 for suggestive themes)