Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Howl's Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones

When Sophie Hatter falls foul of the wicked Witch of the Waste, she heads off to the best place to get help - to the mysterious moving castle inhabited by the mysterious wizard Howl. But Howl, it is said, eats the hearts or souls of every young girl he comes across. Undeterred by the rumours, Sophie establishes herself as cleaner in the Moving Castle, and is whisked away in an adventure of magic spells and curses, fire demons, charmed suits and seven-league boots, and she even gets to peep into a strange land called Wales, before the Witch's spell can be lifted and Sophie can, despite being the ill-fated eldest child, find her happily-ever-after.

Diana Wynne Jones was my best friend's favourite author growing up, yet somehow I managed to reach my twenties without having read any of her work. My friend was determined to rectify this, and so this Christmas, alongside my presents, she handed me a huge bag of all the books I'd lent her over the past year, and a few of her own in return, including Howl's Moving Castle.

Sophie Hatter is a practical, no-nonsense young lady who is well aware of the conventions of the sort of story she lives in. She knows the importance of birth order in stories, that the eldest child is never successful in seeking their fortune, and accepts her lot in life. But when she finds herself transformed into an elderly woman, she decides it is up to her to find her way out of the mess, which she does with a level head and a lot of stubbornness. The Wizard Howl's reputation is greatly exaggerated, as such reputations usually are, but he is still a vain and selfish man who Sophie can't tell if he can be trusted or not. Still, he is an amusing and likeable character, for all his foibles. 

Some fantasy books are fantasy, and others are fairy tale. Wynne Jones establishes from the very beginning that Howl is set in the land of Once Upon A Time. The world of Ingary is a world where there is no such thing as impossible - although, of course, the impossible has its own rules - and Wynne Jones' simple, matter-of-fact narration of weird and wonderful occurrences, gives the book a dreamlike quality reminiscent of such classics as Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz. But this is a wonderland with a twist. About halfway through the novel, Howl takes Sophie to see his strange, far-away homeland - which is revealed to be 20th Century Wales, and his strange name a corruption of Howell. Howell Jenkins. We get to see our world as if it were the fairyland.

Howl's Moving Castle is a charming and cheeky fairy tale that turns a lot of the traditional fantasy conventions on their heads. I'm off to see a stage play of the story in London at the weekend, and it has also been adapted by Studio Ghibli into an anime film.


  1. I got this as a RAK about six months ago and still haven't read it! I've never heard a word said against it and the film is meant to be wonderful too, but I just haven't got round to picking it up yet.

    Thanks for the review though - it may just prompt me into getting it read soon!

  2. I've always wanted to read this book and have only seen the movie.


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