This second book in the Raven of the Inner Palace series picks up where the anime version left off, or pretty close to it. Of course, that version still leaves out enough information to keep us interested in reading the book, but what’s even better is that this translation feels much smoother than the first one. This book doesn’t have as many strange turns of phrase or words that are used over and over again, which makes it even more enjoyable to read.
The choice to use the Japanese readings of the characters’ names instead of the Chinese ones is likely out of the hands of both translator Amelia Mason and distributor Seven Seas. This is the only real complaint that can be made. For every name that sounds right, there’s one that doesn’t, like “Shihitsu” and “Shukuko.” Even though these fit with the fantasy theme of the story, they are also just a little strange enough to be annoying, especially if you already know the Chinese lines from the anime. It’s not truly a bad choice, but it does make reading a little harder.
The story keeps building up Jusetsu as a character while also adding to the world’s mythology. When we left Jusetsu at the end of the previous volume, she had taken in two ladies-in-waiting and a bodyguard, even though the bodyguard is only technically working for her and is still under the command of Eisei, Koshun’s top eunuch. As the previous Raven Consort, Reijo told Jusetsu very clearly not to take on servants or partners, so she doesn’t like this new normal. She’s also used to doing everything herself. Koshun sets up a meeting between Jusetsu and Gyoei, the Winter Minister, who is an old friend of Reijo’s. He also tells her that she shouldn’t be spending so much time with other people. Even though no one seems to know why, it doesn’t make her feel better, and she can’t get rid of the thought that she’s doing something wrong.
This central idea is one of the best things about the book. It seems like Jusetsu is really torn between being a good girl who does what she’s told and going after what she wants and needs. This fits in well with the part of the Raven Consort and how it has changed over the years. As you may remember, the Raven Consort used to be the Winter Sovereign. She was the female version of the Summer Sovereign, who is now the ruler. A Summer Sovereign made the decision to jail the Winter Sovereign many centuries ago, and every Raven Consort since then has had to deal with the effects of that decision. As a result, many of the rules that control Jusetsu’s role can be seen as ways to keep all the power in the hands of men. One way this is done is by making sure that Raven Consorts are socially isolated in the busy Inner Palace. It’s not easy for her to get away from the restrictions if no one is around to help her.
But this book shows that there’s more going on than that. The first Raven Consort held the goddess Uren Niangniang inside her body in some way. Now, each new Raven Consort takes care of the goddess and makes offerings to keep her mostly calm. In return, they use her spiritual skills to help ghosts leave, just like Jusetsu does. This information doesn’t make it any less painful to turn a queen into a concubine, but it does show that she’s very strong and probably dangerous to herself and others. The fact that a new Raven Consort is chosen eight years before the old one dies shows that Uren Niangniang is aware of how her host bodies are breaking down. The pain that each one feels on nights when there is no moon and the goddess can fly away shows that this is not a mutually beneficial relationship. Uren Niangniang may even be trying to shorten the lives of Raven Consorts.
There was a scene with the goddess’ brother, who was only known as the Owl and was portrayed by that bird. This helps to show that something happened hundreds of years ago that wasn’t just the Winter Sovereign’s power being used up. The Owl seems to think that his sister was changed in some way, but it’s not clear if that was because she was locked up or why she was locked up in the first place. Also, we don’t know if he was ever connected to the Summer Sovereign, which would be interesting to know and may be what the ending of this book means. (It might be interesting to think about how many old pantheons have romantic relationships between brothers and sisters, even though that might sound gross to us today.) There are some connections between what the Owl did and what Koshun did, especially since Koshun wants to help Jusetsu in any way possible.
There’s also a story about a sister and brother that starts in chapter one and doesn’t end until chapter four. The woman wants Jusetsu to bring her beloved brother back from the dead. Jusetsu says no because that’s not a power she has, but the woman is determined, and terrible things happen. No matter how you look at it, the story is sad, and any love undertones you see in the siblings’ relationship seem to be on purpose, which makes sense when we think about the two gods. It’s also about how love can change people or make them do stupid things, which is a theme that runs through all four cases where Jusetsu is used in this book. The fact that Koshun is growing close to a partner he’s not supposed to talk to or sleep with makes his feelings for her seem more ominous.
The second book in Raven of the Inner Palace is just as good as the first. It’s a fascinating dark tale. It’s taking Jusetsu a little while to accept that she is not Reijo, and her world is getting bigger and changing around her. It’s a story that knows how to combine plot and theme, and reading this book is still fun even if you’ve seen the movie version.