Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Pub. Date: Apr. 1986 (read Jun. 2022)
Since I’ve never written a review for this one before, let’s start by saying I’ve probably read Howl’s Moving Castle a dozen times since childhood and it remains one of my all-time favourite books. No matter how many times I’ve read it, it still surprises me every time with its intricate plot and the whimsical characters always bring a smile to my face.
What I think makes this so special is that it’s both a beloved book and movie, each with its own fan base. From what I’ve read, the movie is more popular than the book (some people don’t even know it’s based on a book), but that they should be viewed as two separate pieces of art because they are quite different. I wouldn’t know because I haven’t actually seen the movie. I’m tempted, but Howl and Sophie have lived so completely in my imagination since I was a child that I decided never to watch it to forever preserve the way I envisioned this world it as a child. I’ve read a ton of Diana Wynne Jones, but Howl’s Moving Castle will always be my favourite (though I do hold a soft spot for The Lives of Christopher Chant).
So what to say about Howl. Howl’s Moving Castle is a middle grade fantasy set in the land of Ingary, where there are floating castles, vain wizards, fire demons, vengeful witches, and seven-league boots. Sophie Hatter is the eldest of 3 sisters and as such, destined to fail miserably should she ever set out to seek her fortune. However, when a nasty run-in with the Witch of the Waste lands her under a curse that turns her into an old woman, she decides it’s time to set out anyways, fortune or not. She finds herself in Howl’s castle, an evil wizard who entraps young girls and eats their hearts, and rashly enters a bargain with a fire demon to try and break her curse.
As it turns out, wizard Howl is neither evil nor a heart-eater, and we slowly get to know this vain and brash wizard as Sophie settles in at the castle with Howl, his assistant Michael, and his fire demon, Calcifer. From there, the book is filled with hijinks and adventure as Sophie sets out to change the lives of everyone around her.
So let me elaborate on all the reasons why I love this book. First of all, it’s fun. Diana Wynne Jones has written some darker novels to be sure, but humour always features in her books and she is in fine form in Howl’s Moving Castle. All of her characters are spunky and find themselves in serious, yet ridiculous situations. All of the characters are over the top, but you can’t help but laugh out loud and Jones never takes herself too seriously. Howl is brash and Sophie is brazen, but they have such chemistry!
Which brings me to my second point – it has heart. Each character in this book is expertly crafted and they all have so much characterization! Sophie is a young mousy girl, but when she is transformed into a 90 year old woman, she realizes nothing matters anymore and throws all caution to the wind. Instead of being upset about her severely shortened lifespan, she just embraces being an old lady and lives life more than she ever did as a young woman. In contrast, Howl is an avoider, but Sophie’s new found outlook holds him to account like no one has ever been able to do before. On the surface, these are two characters that don’t like each other, but if you delve just a little bit deeper, you’ll find two extremely kind hearted people in orbit of one another.
But in addition to Sophie and Howl, there’s a vibrant cast of secondary characters that will warm your heart just as much! I adore an author that can create side characters that are just as well developed, and Jones is a master. We fall in love with both Michael and Calcifer, but even Lettie, Martha, and Fanny have their own roles to play. There are no throwaway characters and no throwaway interactions.
Which brings me to my last point – this book is smart. It’s subtle, but it has a very clever plot and no ideas are wasted. It’s something that a lot of my favourite literature has in common. Jones has taken the time to understand and craft this world and this plot and while a lot of it may seem random, each scene has its own place in the story. It’s the reason I can read this book over and over again, because I honestly forget half the plot each time, even though I never forget the characters. It really is full of magic and adventure and whimsy, while also being genius at world-building. Ingary exists so completely and fully formed that I don’t feel like I’m discovering it so much as walking off the page into it, and that is the mark of a truly talented writer.
So I will continue to return to this world time and time again and I encourage you to visit it too. It is absolutely the kind of middle grade that can be enjoyed by anyone and everyone. A very special place in my heart!