Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl’s castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there’s far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye.– Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones
The wonder of Diana Wynne Jones is her no-nonsense approach to fantasy.
In a recent post in one of my writing groups, someone asked if it was worth reading Howl’s Moving Castle, or if it was a silly kid’s book. Now at first, I bristled. I couldn’t help it. No endeavor in fantasy is ever ‘silly’. Really, it isn’t. Everyone gets to use their imaginations and blossom beneath that fertile tree, devouring the fruits of an author’s labors.
So I did what I always did and told them to read the book. Then I reread it myself. Because I like to do that.
Howl’s Moving Castle is well-known in some ways yet not well-known in other ways. Many people recognize it from the masterful interpretation done by Studio Ghibli (that movie is one of my favourites). It is beautifully executed but the story does deviate quite a bit from the book. And in many ways, I find the book far more engrossing. I read it all in one sitting as a restless kid and it sparked my love of fantasy. I still do reread it but perhaps not as often as I used to.
The book covers the intricate world that Sophie lives in but it is not as important as the actual plot and story. Many authors consume themselves with worldbuilding and exposition can become exhausting. I’m guilty of it myself and I strive to get better. You travel with Sophie and encounter the vain and immature Howl, who blossoms as a character without losing what makes him so darn affable. Sophie herself is likable in the extreme and highly relatable; she suffers from a squashed sense of confidence and believes that her quiet life is unavoidable and unchangeable. Side characters present interesting cases as well for closer looks; from Sophie’s talented sisters, her selfishly loving mother, to the enemy she finds in the Witch of the Waste, to the fire demon Calcifer who seems quite the match for his master Howl.
I’m not going to dissect the books. I don’t really like doing that for general reviews. I’m not going to look at this as a writer but as a reader, if possible. I don’t go looking for tropes and where it trips up. This isn’t like the grossly overinflated CinemaSins.
What Diana Wynne Jones does so well is write worlds that children and adults can understand and take things away from individually. Her characters are incredibly real and vibrant. Her stories are timeless because she doesn’t really try to overcomplicate things. I know some writers that try so hard to ‘trick’ the reader that their story gets confusing. The story rolls on easily, with few stalling points and that constant motion never gets exhausting. Like many good fantasy books, it doesn’t rely on exhaustive scenes that makes you long for it to be over. The scene changeovers are sensible and the world she builds has one foot in reality and one foot in the impossible. This is a wonderful thing for me. As much as I love other fantasy worlds, I love seeing this sort of storytelling. It keeps things moving and it forces the reader to focus.
The crucial difference between the movie adaptation and the book is the idea of acceptance and unconditional love is better executed and doesn’t rely on one character changing too much. Characters do grow and they mature, but it is done so skilfully that you are cheering for them. Having characters grow so vibrantly makes it a delight to read.
This book launched several others but this one is my favourite of that small series. It is the kind of read to tuck into your bag and enjoy on your commute or in the park. I take this one on every trip I make and probably should get a new copy someday. It introduced me to why I wanted to write fantasy for myself. Like many of her books, this has become a classic for many fantasy and non-fantasy readers alike because, in a sense, it gives you a sense of freedom and hope.
As some books should.