Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. ★★★★
It’s hard to review a book which is so closely associated with my childhood. I have clear memories of sneaking pages of Howl’s Moving Castle during mandatory 5th grade camp, desperately trying to air conditioned places to read in. I’m happy to say that even reading it years later, Howl’s Moving Castle is still a book worth loving.
Sophie Hatter is the oldest of three sisters, and she knows she won’t amount to much. Her youngest sister will probably go off and seek her fortune, having great adventures, but Sophie? Her future holds nothing more than hats. Then the infamous Witch of the Wastes comes into the hat shop and curses Sophie, transforming her into an old woman. In a state of shock, Sophie wanders out of the hat shop and off into the hills, where she comes across Howl’s Moving Castle. Howl is nearly as infamous as the Witch of the Waste, and Sophie’s always been told to stay away from him since he devours young women’s hearts. But Sophie’s no longer a young woman, so what does she have to be afraid of? She barges her way into Howl’s castle and makes a deal with a fire demon – if she breaks the demon’s contract with Howl, the demon will free her from the curse.
Jones’s prose is straight forward but utterly charming. Howl’s Moving Castle has something of the feel of an original fairy tale. The world of the book contains witches and wizards, seven league boots, kings and princesses, and other elements out of European fairy tales. For all that, the focus of the novel is small, centering around Sophie, Calcifer (the fire demon), Howl, and Howl’s apprentice Micheal.
The real strength of the novel lies in the characterization of Howl and Sophie. They are both likable but by no means flawless. Sophie underestimates herself for the majority of the book, and she’s got an incredibly fierce temper. Howl is vain, childish, fickle, cowardly and lazy. There’s a wonderful scene where he throws a temper tantrum about botched hair dye and Sophie shoves him fully clothed into a cold shower.
If there’s one thing that I dislike about the novel, it’s how Diana Wynne Jones always feels the need to pair everybody up at the end. It’s not a major flaw, but it’s a pattern I’ve seen in her books that annoys me.
If you’re already familiar with the animated movie, there’s still a lot to surprise you about the book. The second half of the book has an almost completely different plot than the movie, and there’s many differences of characterization. The movie sanded off a lot of Howl’s and Sophie’s rough edges, so I strongly prefer the book versions.
It was a delight to revisit this novel from my childhood, and it is a story I would recommend to anyone, of any age.