Perhaps the most well-known of Diana Wynne Jones’s extensive body of work (and not just because of the Hayao Miyazaki film), Howl’s Moving Castle is colourful, imaginative, humorous, mysterious and immensely clever, where nothing — absolutely nothing — is what it seems. Chock-a-block full of vivid characters and a twisty-turny storyline, this is one of those rare books (usually reserved for adult novels) that I can read for the third, fourth, fifth time and still pick up on some new detail that I’d previously missed.
In a sendup of the usual fairytale formula, Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three daughters, and so well aware that she’s destined to have no adventures whatsoever in her life — especially with two younger, prettier sisters. Still, she’s resigned to working in her late father’s hat shop until the day the notorious Witch of the Waste enters and turns her into an old woman. Sophie has no idea why it’s been done or how to break the spell, but ashamed of her new appearance, she takes to the road.
She finds herself in the titular Moving Castle, home to the Wizard Howl who is rumoured to seduce young girls and steal their hearts. Ironically, her transformation gives Sophie a new lease on life, finding that as an old woman she’s lost most of her shyness and so assertive enough to set herself up as Howl’s cleaning lady. In her new position Sophie finds an abundance of mysteries to contend with: a demon living in the fireplace that offers to remove her spell if she helps break his contract with the wizard; the logistics of the castle itself, which has a singular door that can open into various locations and worlds (including modern-day Wales); and Howl himself, an infuriatingly vain and self-absorbed wizard with astonishing power that he apparently uses solely to woo ladies.
The story itself is intricately plotted, with Sophie being witness to several events that don’t have their full meaning explained until much later. The identities of several characters remain concealed, or even divided up between various entities for much of the book’s duration, and the motivations of the book’s main players can be mysterious or even obscure. It’s a tangled web that takes some discernment (or perhaps a second read) to fully grasp, especially given the rather hurried wrap-up, but it makes for a surprisingly complex storyline that demands your full attention. As Calcifer keeps telling Sophie, he’s constantly giving her hints about the nature of his contract with Howl (being unable to tell her outright) but she keeps missing them.
And that’s not even mentioning the scarecrow that chases Sophie around the countryside, the disappearances of Wizard Suliman and Prince Justin, and the bizarre sights waiting for Sophie when Howl takes her to modern-day Wales…
Sophie makes for an unorthodox heroine, not only in her enchantment that renders her an elderly woman, but in her practicality and dry wit. She makes a perfect foil for the flamboyant, dishonest, self-appreciative Howl, who tries to “slither out” of his predicaments rather than face them head-on. Sophie never hesitates in calling him out on his bad behaviour, though it becomes clear as the story goes on that plenty of hidden depths exist beneath his drama-queen persona. There’s also Calcifer, the sardonic and perhaps untrustworthy fire demon that controls the movement and magic of the castle, and Michael, Howl’s good natured young apprentice who quickly befriends Sophie when she first arrives. All of them are vividly realized, and Wynne Jones is an expert in taking an impartial view of these people and their personalities, letting the reader judge for themselves what they’re really like (in other words, she’s a master of the “show, don’t tell” rule).
But Diana Wynne Jones’s real gift is in how she makes magic so domestic — and therein lies its power and charm. Whether it be Calcifer nestling in the fireplace or Howl turning his home into a flower shop, everything weird and wonderful is treated so casually by the narrative that the perspective somehow flips on itself, becoming even more mysterious and potent to the reader. The inevitable comparison is the treatment of magic in HARRY POTTER, wherein every spell and charm would be met with awe and excitement — here, magic is treated as an everyday occurrence, thereby rendering it even more thrilling.
The ending is perhaps wrapped up a bit too hurriedly (such a complex storyline needed perhaps a little more exposition just to clarify things in the reader’s mind) but this remains one of Wynne Jones’s best novels. Be sure to follow up on these characters’ lives in the sequel: Castle in the Air.
Renewed interest in the author (and this book in particular) rose after the release of Studio Ghibli’s adaptation of the story, which is currently available on DVD. Though I enjoyed the film, especially for its visual brilliance, it changes or omits several important elements of the storyline, leaving it rather convoluted as a result. It’s better treated as supplemental material to the book than a straightforward adaption of it, but it’s still very enjoyable in its own way.