While Kuro by the same team was a niche hit, Shadows House now is an AOE crit hit. It’s colored, it has one of the most unique worlds in recent manga, it’s fantastic. Shadows House seems to be beloved in France, and the French are right - they know good bande dessinée when they see’em.
First of all – this is not slice-of-life as some people call It, evidently judging by the covers, the description, and the few first chapters. The manga starts slow, because of delayed exposition. The characters learn about the world together with us, cause the world is the main mystery here, and also the main attraction. When they learn enough though, they start to act.
I have the chance to write a review at the time when this manga has run for a while already, so I can say that it has separated into two main distinct halfs so far:
1 - The first is mostly eery subversive exploration, from the point of view of Emilyco, the young maid you see on the covers. She’s plunged in a vast strange Gormenghast-like world of a castle, where she’s both limited and free, overlooked, as lowly servants are. She serves her master, deals with her problems, and tries to learn more about the space. The subversion comes from the juxtaposition of her cheerful open personality and the closed-off terrifying “habits” of the place, which her pure soul tends to overlook. It is normalcy for her even if it looks horrible to us, after all.
2 -The second is a high tension political intrigue between nobles with some action elements. Here the attention switches to Kate, Emilyco’s master. This part has a bigger cast of distinct characters, spy-like mental battles, deathly competitions, and a fight against the oppression of the elders.
Both are united at heart around the secret of the order in the house. Who or what are shadows? Why do they act this way? What is hidden beneath the many bloody lies the giant house is built on?
The majority of events takes place in the giant labyrinthine stone castle of the Shadows family, divided by class and age and the favor of the ruler. It’s heavy and inescapable, lost in the perpetual mist – its own surreal world, reminiscent of European dark fantasy, of its many feverish dystopias and disturbing dreams. The style of interiors and clothes is also European – we see Victorian things, some art deco, the characteristic imagery of English industrialism. It’s also colored as European comics usually are. The team cites Edward Gorey (an illustrator beloved by Tim Burton) as an inspiration apart from the Japanese horror manga.
This work has the intense narrative consistency of Japanese comics too though, and a great cast of characters mangakas like to grow. I don’t want to spoil, since discovery is so fragrant, do delicious here, but there’s a complex interplay between the servants and their masters, and within the classes – between different groups of servants and nobles. The manipulative rules of the house are masked as duty and care. Beneath them, behind the impenetrable masks every character fights for their own survival and goals, mostly warped goals only warped people can cook up, while slowly losing themselves further. The stakes are death or complete erasure for all.
The art is very pleasing even besides the color. The characters are distinct, interesting effects are used to show the shadow people’s difference. There's clear juxtaposition between the cuteness of designs and the bone chilling elements of the story, which compliments the same device in narration. The cuteness is good on its own as well. The interiors are well realized and combine European high class late XIX - early XX century interiors with steampunk and surrealist oil art. The outfits are especially eye catching and elaborate (and no wonder, since it’s the most Shadows get to show their personality, which is absolutely vital for them), the maid/butler outfit fans also won't be disappointed.
The art in Shadows House is soul food for the eye. As for fanservice – one can point out that the protags look like children, and there’s some cleavage shown off, but it’s wholly ignorable.
Shadows House is simply without peer at the moment, in many ways because it creates a playing field of its own. It’s very distinct, combining the best of Japanese and European comics, aesthetics and art inspirations into a unique captivating fictional world. While at the time I am writing this it’s announced that Shadows House will get an anime adaptation, this work is literary-inspired, so it feels right to read it. It’s also very carefully planned and focused, it's clear that the whole story is ready and thought through, so it is more pleasurable to read it as a whole. Anyways, whether you plan to wait for the adaptation or not, whether you prefer manga like me – this is a work worth picking up for everyone and all. Shadows House is magical and deserves more attention and more readers.