House of El: The Shadow Threat had me hooked almost immediately, and if you want to see likable young adults try to save their society, this is the tightly plotted, fast-paced, and lushly illustrated book for you.
House of El: Book 1: The Shadow Threat
Dee Cunniffe (colors), Deron Bennett (letters) Claudia Gray (writer) and Eric Zawadzki (art)
January 5, 2021
This is the first book in a planned House of El series, and it opens on a Krypton beset by “groundquakes” and a ruling class that refuses to acknowledge the danger they pose. As the book goes on, it becomes clear that the groundquakes are a physical threat to the planet exacerbated by the social ills that keep one set of people on top and others far, far below.
At the top, there are families like the Houses of Re and El, whose people have been genetically engineered for generations to embody the traits Krypton prizes in its ruling class. At the bottom are people in Houses like Ur and Zu, also genetically engineered for their roles, serving those at the top through menial labor and dangerous foot soldier work.
It turns out, however, that it is possible to resist the genetic engineering (and clearly, also the social engineering that emphasizes the inevitability of these roles) and Sera, a daughter of the House of Ur, a brave and intelligent soldier under General Zod, is handpicked to help Krypton in an unorthodox way.
Meanwhile, Zahn, a son of the elite House of Re, is having qualms about his role in society and the danger of willfully ignoring the groundquakes. He and Sera have a romantic history, it seems, and the events of this book throw them together again, in ways that they couldn’t have imagined.
In this first book of the series, Claudia Gray and Eric Zawadzki are to be commended for their excellent pacing as well as the fun and twisting plot they present. Sera and Zahn’s discoveries about their world and the potential they each have to go beyond their rigid roles are interwoven deftly with action scenes like a rebel meeting being broken up by armed guards, or a daring rescue from a toppling building.
Their Krypton is reminiscent of many other class dystopias, in wonderful ways. It is a worthy addition to this specific subgenre. I was at times reminded of the Eloi and Morlocks from The Time Machine, as the elite of Krypton live far above the dangerous ground levels where the grunts live. Similarly, echoes of the class divisions in The Hunger Games or Elysium may sound, because they too draw on the same problem with unconsidered utopia: it must be sustained by dystopian conditions for someone else. In House of El: The Shadow Threat, it’s particularly engaging to see this play out as a prequel to all the Superman and Supergirl stories we already know and love.
Zawadzki’s art is perfect for this story, not only because his pacing from panel to panel is very good, but also because he conveys the harsh differences of setting for different classes with a lush richness. His linework on faces is excellent, with two protagonists who look distinct, show facial emotions, and stay extremely good looking in believable ways all the time. Dee Cunniffe’s colors add to the mood of each setting, color coding the upper class’s realms with bright cool colors, and the dangerous work of the soldiers and their lower class levels with darker warm tones. It’s a good team.
The series is called House of El, so I doubt it counts as a spoiler to say that Lara and Jor-El appear, but they’re not the main characters. I am curious to see in future books of this series how the House of El is central to the series name, but even if those two famous characters don’t gain in importance, I look forward to reading more of Zahn and Sera’s adventures as Krypton falls apart around them.