Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Harper Collins
Publication date: First edition: 1986 (This edition: 2009)
Paperback: 304 pages
In the land of Ingary, such things as spells, invisible cloaks, and seven-league boots were everyday things. The Witch of the Waste was another matter.
After fifty years of quiet, it was rumored that the Witch was about to terrorize the country again. So when a moving black castle, blowing dark smoke from its four thin turrets, appeared on the horizon, everyone thought it was the Witch. The castle, however, belonged to Wizard Howl, who, it was said, liked to suck the souls of young girls.
The Hatter sisters–Sophie, Lettie, and Martha–and all the other girls were warned not to venture into the streets alone. But that was only the beginning.
In this giant jigsaw puzzle of a fantasy, people and things are never quite what they seem. Destinies are intertwined, identities exchanged, lovers confused. The Witch has placed a spell on Howl. Does the clue to breaking it lie in a famous poem? And what will happen to Sophie Hatter when she enters Howl’s castle?
Diana Wynne Jones’s entrancing fantasy is filled with surprises at every turn, but when the final stormy duel between the Witch and the Wizard is finished, all the pieces fall magically into place.
Stand alone or series: It is a standalone novel that has two companion books: Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: I just recently discovered the works of DWJ and this was recommended by many, many readers.
Excuse me while I fangirl my way through this review.
I only recently discovered Diana Wynne Jones’ books and am already counting them as one of My Favourite Things About 2011 (along with discovering the works of Connie Willis). I am completely head over heels in love with her books, her writing, and you wouldn’t believe how happy I am that she has this looooooong backlist. I finished Howl’s Moving Castle and immediately went and bought Fire and Hemlock which I hear, is Made of Awesome (although completely unrelated to How).
Howl’s Moving Castle is one of those books that everybody and their dog kept telling me I should read and I have no idea why I kept postponing it until now when I decided it was About Time. And it’s funny too because I actually watched the Japanese animated movie years ago and loved it like Whoa and Hell Yes Please. Though now that I read the book, I see that movie is totally different (in case you were wondering) although it retains the Heart of the Story (< << hint).
The basics: Howl’s Moving Castle is a YA novel by British writer Diana Wynne Jones and it was first published in what feels like a Long Time Ago, in 1986, way before this whole YA Boom that we are seeing right now. Why do I even mention this? Because Howl’s Moving Castle has this je ne sais quoi, this Quality that I wish I saw more in the YA Fantasy novels I’ve been reading lately: for it has a Quality that speaks of Forever and I believe Howl’s Moving Castle will stand the Test of Time and be read by generations ahead of us.
But back to the basics: Sophie Hatter is the eldest of 3 siblings living in Market Chipping, the obedient daughter of a hat maker. Her father died a few years ago and Sophie lives with her stepmother and two sisters until, due to their dire economic circumstances, her two sisters are sent away to become apprentices and Sophie stays behind to work at the hat shop. It is a dull life, but that is the lot of Older Sisters, as you know. Anyways, this one day, the infamous and evil Witch of the Waste shows up at the shop and after a puzzling conversation (it is one of the Mysteries to be solved) turns Sophie into an old lady and part of the curse is that she can’t tell anyone about it. Sophie takes that as an opportunity to leave the shop and the town and try her luck in life. She then finds her way to the Moving Castle. Owned by the equally infamous and evil (or is he?) Wizard Howl, who terrifies young ladies and steals their hearts, the Castle is this amazing place with a door that opens to 4 different locations (one of them being the Wales of our own world!). At the Castle, Sophie becomes Howl’s cleaning lady, a position she can only secure after striking a bargain with the Castle’s resident Fire Demon, Calcifer. The bargain says that she will help Calcifer break his contract with Howl (the terms of said contract cannot be disclosed though, which is Another Puzzle that Sophie needs to put together) and in return he will help her become a young lady again. Howl is not very happy to have Sophie around, because he regards her as a busybody who keeps cleaning and moving things around but eventually they start to get along just fine, and Sophie discovers that there is more to Howl than she originally thought.
Howl’s Moving Castle is such a fine read and if I try to talk about everything that could be talked about this book, we would be here forever and an extra day. I mean, it has such wonderful elements: an imaginative world where a Castle’s door opens to 4 different places, each place with its own history and politics and magic (or lack of); it delves in Court politics as the King is looking for a missing brother and a missing Court Magician (which is yet another puzzle) and wants to make Howl his new Court Magician (to Howl’s despair); plus a plethora of great characters and puzzles and romance and curses and it is like, Fantasy at its best because it does wonders with an imaginary world and with fairy tales (more on that later) whilst delving into very real concerns such as one’s lot in life, and family and loyalty, and fear and war, and love and friendship. Not to mention that the book has such hilarious moments (and all of them because of Howl’s tendency to be a Drama King).
No, I can’t possibly talk about everything that is good about the book so instead, I will concentrate on the three elements that to me were the ones that shone.
First of all, we have fairy tale connections: although Howl’s Moving Castle is not really a specific fairytale retelling per se, it does definitely has fairytale elements, trappings and a fairytale feel to it. It is in the way some ideas are put forth: like the matter-of-fact way in which Sophie is presented as the Eldest daughter who will have no luck in life, because that’s the Way Things Are. But most importantly to me, is how those fairytale ideas are taken, explored and subverted. For example: Sophie’s family and life are definitely reminiscent of Cinderella but with Sophie having a good relationship with her sisters and stepmother. But those relationships are put to test and a few things are brought to life only to be later on, explored even further. Similarly, Howl and Sophie are definitely Beauty and the Beast although the roles keep changing (Sophie is at times the Beauty and at times the Beast and the same goes for Howl) and are not so easily defined. Speaking of roles, both characters are in need of saving but that saving doesn’t happen without soul searching and change. And how about Howl for a hero? Although ultimately, he is definitely a good person he is also a vain, self-absorbed cowardly wizard, who many times pulls a tantrum because he has the man-flu or his hair is the wrong colour. Obviously, I have a huge character crush.
Then, I can’t proceed without mentioning the writing. Do you know what I love about Diana Wynne Jones’ writing? The fact that she doesn’t look down at her readers, doesn’t mollycoddle them, doesn’t make it easy: the story progresses with little to no exposition or explanations as the author completely trusts the readers to put things together and reach their own conclusions. I find this extremely revealing especially since we still seem to be living in a world where some authors who write for adults are still assuming that books for children are easy and puerile.
Which brings me to my final point:
Words. Howl’s Moving Castle is perhaps, at its heart a book about words, or a book that understands the importance of words. It is present in the clever writing but also in the plot in so many different ways: with puzzles, with songs, with words that hurt, with words that save, with curses, with self-inflicted harm that comes from believing in words. And then eventually, Sophie finds out that words ARE indeed magic.
Which is exactly what I love about Diana Wynne Jones’.
Notable Quotes/ Parts: Oh Howl, you crack me up so much. This is a scene where Howl tried to dye his hair (which is something that he does all the time).
Look at this!” he shouted. “Look at it! What has that one-woman force of chaos done to these spells?”
“If you mean me – ” Sophie began.
“I do mean you. Look!” Howl shrieked. He sat down with a thump on the three-legged stool ad jabbed at his wet head with his finger. “Look. Survey. Inspect. My hair is ruined! I look like a pan of bacon and eggs!”
Michael and Sophie bent nervously over Howl’s head. It seemed the usual flaxen colour right to the roots. The only difference might have been a slight, very slight, trace of red. Sophie found that agreeable. It reminded her a little of the colour her own hair should have been.
“I think it’s very nice,” she said.
“Nice!” screamed Howl. “You would! You did it on purpose. You couldn’t rest until you made me miserable too. Look at it! It’s ginger! I shall have to hide until it’s grown out!” He spread his arms out passionately. “Despair!” he yelled. “Anguish! Horror!”
Additional Thoughts: In 2004, the book was adapted into a Japanese animated movie written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Although very different from the book, the movie stand on its own and it is equally wonderful.
Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfection
Reading Next: Shadowed Summer by Saundra Mitchell