Howl’s Moving Castle

Jones, Diana Wynne. Howl’s Moving Castle (2001 ed.) 329 Pages. Greenwillow Books. $6.99

They always say “save the best for last,” so I have opted to save my favorite Diana Wynne Jones book to conclude Diana Wynne Jones week. It’s been nothing but fun, reading long-time favorites and books I didn’t know existed. The book which has stuck with me the longest, and which I think I enjoyed the most out of all of DWJ’s novels is Howl’s Moving Castle, because it so seamlessly melds fairy-tale conventions and adventure and twists and turns to become such a solid and excellent fantasy novel. Let us begin with the beginning:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.

Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters. She was not even the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success.

So begins one of the few books which I can safely list as a favorite novel of all time.

Sophie Hatter has resigned herself to a boring life, running her family’s hat shop. As the eldest, it’s a “fact” that she will never become anything, that her adventures will fail, and that she has nothing to look forward to but mediocrity. After Sophie’s sisters — Lettie and Martha– are apprenticed away from the shop, Sophie’s life is exactly what she expected; quiet and average. Everything changes when the Witch of the Waste appears at the hat shop, and curses Sophie, turning her into an old lady.

Something about being old makes Sophie fearless, so she heads out to Wizard Howl’s Moving Castle in the waste. There she meets Calcifer the fire demon, and enters into a deal– she’ll break his contract, and he’ll find a way to remove the Witch’s spell. It sounds like a fair enough bargain, so Sophie agrees, and so begins the first adventure of Sophie’s life. Life with Howl is nothing like what she expected, and the “freedom” of old age allows her to grow from the quiet, fearful girl she is at the beginning into the strong adult she is by the end.

There’s a lot more that I cannot say without spoiling the book (which would be a horrible thing to do), so I’ll leave it at that. Almost nothing is what it seems at first glance, and by the end of the novel everything has resolved itself in a thoroughly satisfying way. There are more books which form this “series,” though Sophie only makes cameos later, rather than being the central character.

In Conclusion:

If you like fantasy adventures, then this is not the book to miss. It’s got adventure, intrigue, magic, and romance. The narration is excellent, the characters intriguing, and the story enthralling. It’s one of my all-time favorites, so it gets an unquestionable 5/5.

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On an aside, there is a Studio Ghibli interpretation of Howl’s Moving Castle, which is a beautiful, enjoyable movie. However, it falls into the genre of “inspired by the book” rather than being true to it. Martha disappears, Michael becomes a child, Howl is a bird-monster, Sophie a brunette, the Witch a blob. Calcifer is still Calcifer, but that’s because the whole premise rides upon  his… flames. It is a very, very good movie if you’re interested in animated movies which were inspired by books.

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As part of the Dogeared Reading Challenge, I’ll be documenting the “loved” shape this volume is in with a couple pictures. It’s been pretty well beaten, with that beautiful curve that spines get when they’ve been read too many times. This particular book is worth 5 points on the beaten-scale. The cover is actually a separate entity from the book, it’s held on by tape and a bit of glue. I wish I had a book-repair setup, so I could fix this book before I return it to the library. That’s the thing I miss the most from my student-assistant job.

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10 Comments

Filed under Book Review, Fantasy, High Fantasy, Romance, Young Adult Fiction

10 responses to “Howl’s Moving Castle

  1. I was so disappointed in the movie. I complained so much that my then-boyfriend did something tricky to the subtitles track so that instead of “Sophie” it always said “Jenny”, instead of “Howl” it always said his name, and instead of everyone else’s names it said various insults. And that is my main memory of the film. :p

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    • I’ve never actually watched it with subtitles. I understand enough Japanese that I always just watch it in Japanese sans subs (to make myself practice) or in English (because I’m being lazy.)

      I’m also a silly little Miyazaki fangirl, so I’ve forgiven him for the rather large liberties he took while interpreting the book into a movie.

      I just try very, very hard to think of them as separate stories, and it mostly works.

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  2. Pingback: Giveaway winners; and links rounded up, part 2 « Jenny's Books

  3. Oceans

    Maybe I should read this book. You know how much I love the movie. Even if it is not the same, I would love to read the story that inspired the movie story.

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  4. trapunto

    Great review, and a pretty darned perfect description of what the movie is, as opposed to the book!

    I’m a subtitle snob. We drove two hours to see the movie subbed instead of dubbed in a theater, then I watched it a second-run theater with toilet-paper earplugs and a hoodie wrapped around my head like Jacob Marley, so I wouldn’t have to associate a growling, american-accented Christian Bale with Howl. Or Billie Crystal with Calcifer. My husband puts up with a lot.

    I should just learn Japanese and be done with it. (But that would be work.)

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    • You should learn Japanese. It makes it so much more fun to get indignant about subtitles. “THAT’S NOT WHAT THEY SAID!” is a common exclamation when I watch anime with my mother. She still enjoys it, because I can explain the cultural stuff for her.

      I think I like the subtitled version of Howl’s a bit better, but all-in-all the dub-cast could have been worse. (Although Christian Bale really, really needs to stop the “growling” thing he does all the time.)

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  5. I actually saw the movie before reading the book (which happened to be my gateway into DWJ’s worlds). Even though I loved the film, I was blown away by the novel–the structure, the pacing, the cleverly crafted mysteries. By far, Howl’s Moving Castle is DWJ’s best work.

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    • I really love the Miyazaki movie, and I understand completely how it could be a gateway into DWJ books (and vice-versa). Have you tried reading House of Many Ways? (And/or Castle in the Air which may be my least-favorite of the set.)

      It’s interesting to see how one great storyteller interprets another great storyteller’s tale.

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  6. I adored House of Many Ways, especially the concept of the house and Charmaine herself. Castle in the Air started out strong, but it lost some steam toward the end, although I enjoyed how DWJ managed to weave Howl and company into the story.

    I was actually a Miyazaki fan before I was a DWJ fan. The Howl movie is very Miyazaki-flavored.

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