~by Diana Wynne Jones
1986 ALA Best Book for Young Adults
2006 Phoenix Award
Howl's Moving Castle by Diane Wynne Jones was first published in 1986. I have no idea how I completely missed reading this novel growing up. My first introduction to the story was through Hayao Miyazaki's 2004 anime adaptation; I enjoyed the film well enough that I wanted to read the source material. What I didn't realize was that Howl's Moving Castle is actually the first book in a series and that it is followed by Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways. I have only read one other work by Jones, her novel Hexwood, but I remember really enjoying it when I was younger. When I let people know I was finally reading Howl's Moving Castle, there was a huge outpouring of love shown for the story. It made me very happy to see so much excitement over a book that is almost three decades old; it made me look forward to reading it even more.
As the oldest of three sisters, Sophie Hatter is resigned to her fate. She doesn't expect anything great or interesting to happen in her life, all the good fortune is reserved for the youngest daughter of course. Additionally, she's actually a stepsister to the other two. After a case of mistaken identity, it is Sophie's luck to be on the wrong side of the Witch of the Waste who puts Sophie under a spell that not only turns her into an old woman, but she's prevented from telling anyone about it, too. Sophie's only chance at returning to normal is to seek the aid of the Wizard Howl, who is said to eat the hearts of young women. It turns out he might no be quite as bad as the rumors make him out to be, but he is rather vain and self-absorbed. Not to mention the womanizer's made some sort of pact with a fire demon. Even so, Sophie works her way into his household along with Michael, his apprentice, and Calcifer, the aforementioned fire demon.
Because I've seen the anime adaptation of Howl's Moving Castle, it makes sense that I would compare the two. While both versions start out very similarly, by the end they've gone in very different directions. Honestly, I enjoyed both interpretations of the story. If you've only experienced one or the other, you're missing out on some good stuff. However, I was somewhat surprised at, and not entirely convinced by, the inclusion of 20th century Wales in the novel. While clever, it seemed a bit out of place to me in a book primarily set in a fantasy world. Although saying that, I did appreciated the various real world literature references that Jones incorporates into Howl's Moving Castle. I also particularly enjoyed the revelation of Sophie's magical talent. It seems to be very different from the others' magic, but at the same time it feels very natural.
I don't think I'm quite as enamoured with Howl's Moving Castle as everyone else seems to be, but I still enjoyed it immensely. Overall, I found the novel to be charming and utterly delightful. Jones style is fairly lighthearted with a nice sense of humor that doesn't take itself too seriously. I appreciated the fact that the characters were not perfect people; their quirks, faults, and even their selfishness to some extent, make them more likeable and believable. The most basic plot of Howl's Moving Castle is fairly straightforward, but like the castle itself, the narrative wanders quite a bit. I enjoyed getting to know the characters better while the story meanders around, not much happening, but I could see how the slower, indirect pacing could be frustrating for some readers. Still, I enjoyed Howl's Moving Castle and I'm glad I finally read it.