In an Ancient China that perhaps never was, there is a consort to the emperor living in the inner palace. Called the Raven Consort, she alone is exempt from the nighttime duties expected of the emperor’s other brides, instead functioning as a medium/magic practitioner and living by her own set of rules. We know by episode three that she’s not necessarily related to the previous Raven Consort, and that each is chosen by a magic feather from the sacred bird Xing-Xing, but beyond that? She’s as mysterious as the opening theme wants us to believe.
Largely this is because Raven of the Inner Palace is taking a slow approach to letting us know about its world and characters. In another series, it may not have worked, but because each episode has its own mystery (even the two-parter that opens the series is decently self-contained in both episodes one and two, even though it doesn’t resolve until the latter), it allows us to view the story on two levels: the mysteries that heroine Shouxue is tasked with solving and the greater mystery of who she is and where she came from. If you’re thinking that this sounds at least a little bit like Natsume Hyuga’s light novel and manga series The Apothecary Diaries, you’re not wrong – Mao Mao and Shouxue even share a healthy disdain for their romantic interests alongside their mysterious pasts in a fantasy version of Ancient China. Both characters also share the gumption of the heroine of The Story of Saiunkoku, so not only are we working with a very familiar set of story tropes, you’re also likely to find something to like in this story if you enjoyed either of the other two.
Shouxue, of course, has good reason to keep herself to herself. Over the course of these episodes, we learn that she’s the orphaned child of a sex worker, and that her naturally white hair, inherited from her mother, was a death warrant during the administration of the previous emperor. After her mother’s death, she was sold into slavery and later rescued by the Raven Consort, who passed the title along to her. All too aware that her mother died because of the color of her hair, Shouxue continues to dye hers, although when Emperor Gaojun learns of her white locks he doesn’t appear to feel anything like an urge to kill her. In part, that seems to be because he’s actively working to right the wrongs of his predecessor, whose empress had his mother killed. But he’s also growing increasingly fond of and fascinated with the prickly Shouxue, and her hair just adds to her allure.
Given that by episode two Gaojun is making decided moves towards upending the tradition about the Raven Consort being a consort in name only, Shouxue has some things to be concerned about. But Gaojun isn’t the only one interested in making inroads into her reserve; Jiu Jiu, a young court lady, and another woman who had her tongue cut out to prevent her from speaking the truth about what she saw (turns out she’s literate, though, so ha ha, jerks!) are both devoted to Shouxue despite her protests that the Raven Consort isn’t supposed to have ladies in waiting, and the more she interacts with others, the more precarious the traditions governing her seem. There’s a sense that the Raven Consort is held apart from the others based on superstitions and religious strictures about those who can speak to the dead, and as time passes and those beliefs no long hold the power they once did, Shouxue becomes less of an untouchable being than once she was.
The idea that she’s held apart because of what she does and can do is an interesting element of the story, because in both cases that she solves, her primary task is to summon and speak to the dead. It’s worth noting that neither of these stories pull their punches – both the underlying tales are of lovers unjustly separated by death, and this isn’t one of those stories that’s going to bring them back. There’s a tragedy behind both cases, and that seems more important than a mere quirk of storytelling or an attempt to be dark and edgy, because both also are tied to the former empresses, the woman Gaojun wrested power from when he came to the throne. That he didn’t kill her immediately speaks to him wanting to be a different kind of ruler than she was; that when he does, she says something we’re not yet privy to implies that just because she’s dead, it doesn’t mean that she’s done tormenting him.
The Raven of the Inner Palace feels like one of those series where you want to watch each episode twice, and not just so that you can see the beautiful imagery when Shouxue uses her hair ornament to cast magic. (And if you do like it, you’re in luck, because we see it a lot.) There are layers to this story, and peeling them back may require careful observation. But either way, thus far this will more than hold me over until we hopefully get an adaptation of The Apothecary Diaries.
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