In brief, this is the story of Shurei Hong, the impoverished daughter of a noble house who agrees to take a position at the imperial court** in order to cause the careless young emperor to bestir himself. She quickly establishes a platonic but intense relationship with the emperor, who inspired by her deep-rooted optimism and an endless capacity for hard work undertakes to begin to actually govern. But successes come with a price, and each victory has consequences that the story embraces and follows up on.
One particularly interesting theme is Shurei's lifelong desire to take the official examination that is the pre-requisite for holding any administrative post -- an exam which women are not eligible to take -- and the emperor's desire to reward her by changing custom and the law to make that exam open to women; a decision with many consequences. The latter parts of the story suffer somewhat by separating the two main characters for long periods of time, but it's still a compelling story as it shows Shurei growing up and making hard choices.***
That's no more than a bare summary, of course; what makes the show worth watching are an appealing cast of likable characters, a compelling story, an interesting setting, and an undefinable something that makes it all stand out from the crowd. You come to care deeply about these people while watching this series. There are also a lot of nice touches, like their using a proverb for each chapter title ("A Frog in the Well Knows Not About the Ocean", "A Genius Can't Better a Hardworking Man").
In short, highly recommended.
current audiobook: HUMAN SMOKE
current book: TROY & HOMER, PHENEAS SPEAKS
current anime: CANAAN
*That is, both were overtaken by the collapse of Pioneer/Geneon, which left the US releases of the remainder of each series in limbo. This was particularly egregious in the case of SAIUNKOKU, since WHEN THEY CRY had already given three of its constituate chapters in full and reached its mid-point, while SAIUNKOKU had released only two disks, containing only the first ten episodes out of a total of thirty-nine, barely a quarter of its run. Moreover, while fairly good copies of W.T.C. were available on import, the foreign subtitling of the rest of SAIUNKOKU left much to be desired (for example, changing character's names erratically from episode to episode, so it was hard to figure out exactly who they were talking about). Luckily, once again Funimation came to the rescue, releasing a third disk (ep. 11-15) with a box for holding it with the two already out, plus two later slimpacks that contain all the rest of the series in a form that won't take up too much shelf-space.
**technically as imperial concubine, comforting herself with the (false) reports that the emperor is gay.
***[SPOILER] one good example of the show's avoidance of easy solutions is the long-term solution Shurei eventually comes up with for a province devastated by brigands, scheming nobles, lack of stable government, and scanty resources. Her suggestion? Establish a university, which can draw people (and money) from around the empire but does not require a hospitable climate or fertile soil. Of course, she points out, it may take a century or so for the project to reach fruition, but that's all the more reason to start now.