The Story of Saiunkoku gets off to a strong start but levels off a bit after volume 2, devolving into one of those Mary-Sue manga with a smart, sensible girl who isn't aware of her own beauty is surrounded by handsome men who adore her. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, just a little disappointing from a series that starts out with a lot more promise.
The story is set in a mythical kingdom that looks vaguely ancient, and there's a whole heirarchy of families who are descended from the seven sages and named after different colors. Fortunately this seldom comes into play, and it's not something the reader has to spend a lot of time thinking about. What the pseudo-historical setting does do is give writer Sai Yukino and artist Kairi Yura the opportunity to set up a royal court that fits their story, with a set of rules that are all its own and elaborate costumes and hairdos for eye candy. And this is a very attractive book, with clear, clean-lined art and some lovely detail work.
Shurei Hong, the main character, comes from a noble but penniless family; as the story opens, she is celebrating because she expects to make enough money from her teaching job to have barley instead of rice. Shurei's father, Shoka, works in the imperial archives and is kind of a dolt; he doesn't appear to be very bright and his usual expression is a foolish grin. So it's left to Shurei to run the household, which consists of her, her father, and Seiran, the faithful (and hot!) family retainer, who was taken in by Shoka when he was a young boy. Shurei's mother, who was a professional gambler, is dead.
Yes, you read that right: The mother of the sweetest girl on earth was a professional gambler. Actually, one of the delights of this book is that the creators some up with characters who seem wholesome at first glance but really aren't; I can't go into it without spoiling the story, but suffice it to say that there are some unexpected twists in the first two volumes, twists that were actually set up in the early chapters and executed rather cleverly.
As the story begins, the kingdom of Saiunkoku is in a bad way. The emperor has no interest in ruling, nor does he have any interest in producing an heir, as he prefers men to women. A high-ranking member of the court comes to Shurei to ask her to come live in the palace and persuade the emperor to change his ways. This seems like a formidable challenge, but the sweetness of a shoujo heroine is a force beyond all others, and soon the emperor is not only eating out of Shurei's hand, he is sleeping with his head in her lap. In fact, the emperor does a complete about-face and not only dedicates himself to being a good ruler but falls in love with Shurei to boot. Then everything starts to unravel, and the story moves fast, with killings and confessions and all sorts of secrets being revealed; suffice it to say that aside from Shurei and the emperor's two faithful retainers, no one in this book is what they seem to be.
All this gets wrapped up by the end of the second volume, and then Shurei returns home, having rejected the emperor's proposal. Everyone knows Shurei is in love with Seiran, except for Shurei herself, but Ryuki continues to pursue her in endearingly goofy ways, and his two handsome aides drop by regularly for dinner.
That's not a plot, though, so from volume 3 on, the story goes in a different direction: After doing some temp work in the palace, Shurei decides to take the civil service exam. That may not sound like a gripping storyline, and in fact, it's not, because this is shoujo manga so despite a lot of fretting, there is no doubt that Shurei will not only pass the exam but come close to the top score. There's plenty of angst, though, because this is the first time the exam has been opened to women, and it was done on the emperor's orders. He wants to get Shurei back into the palace, but he also realizes that her job will distance her from him. Oh, the drama! Then there are the benighted souls who try to bully Shurei into quitting once she gets a low-level post, the mysterious, vaguely threatening but also kind of hot stranger who appears out of nowhere, and a nice side cast of interesting and colorful characters who keep the story interesting.
As noted earlier, this is one of those books where the girl is so sweet, so strong-yet-good-natured, she arouses a protective instinct in all the guys, who flock around her both because they enjoy her company and to look out for her. To some extent, especially when she is toiling as a low-level civil servant and being bullied by the old stalwarts of the palace, she realizes this and asks the guys to lay off. Mostly, though, she just goes with it.
And who wouldn't? Being surrounded by a bunch of worshipful guys is a pleasant enough fantasy, especially compared to the realities of teenage life. It may wear a bit thin for older readers, but if you're going to read teenage wish-fulfillment manga, it might as well be well done. With its beautiful art and well-wrought storytelling, The Story of Saiunkoku works not only as a shoujo romance manga but as good entertainment as well.