Sunday, 7 February 2016

'Howl's Moving Castle' by Diana Wynne Jones (1986)

Synopsis: Howl's Moving Castle is the first book in a children's fantasy trilogy called The Howl Series. A young woman called Sophie Hatter lives in a small town called Market Chipping in the magical kingdom of Ingary and works in her family's hat shop. Sophie is the eldest of three sisters and has resigned herself to living a dull life and never finding her fortune. After all, everyone knows that it's always the youngest child in the family who is destined to have grand adventures and achieve great things. But then a misunderstanding occurs which leads to Sophie being turned into an old woman by the malevolent Witch of the Waste. Finding her old age surprisingly liberating, Sophie decides to go off and have an adventure of her own in order to break the spell. In the hills above the town she then ends up stumbling across a moving castle which belongs to a mysterious and reclusive wizard called Howl. The wizard is a rival of the Witch of the Waste and has a fearsome reputation in the town - he's rumoured to eat the hearts of beautiful young women and suck out their souls. However, Sophie then ends up becoming a cleaning lady for Howl and goes to live in his castle after striking a bargain with Howl's fire demon Calcifer. If Sophie can break the magical contract which forces Calcifer to work for Howl, Calcifer will restore Sophie's youth. Unfortunately, there's a stipulation in the contract which means that neither Howl nor Calcifer can talk about what the contract actually is. Meanwhile, as Sophie goes about assisting Howl and his teenage apprentice Michael, she discovers that Howl's wicked reputation has been grossly exaggerated. Howl doesn't eat hearts or suck out souls - he's just a terrible flirt who quickly ditches women as soon as they start to fall for him. He's also extremely vain and is quite the drama queen. And yet Howl is ultimately kind-hearted, generous, compassionate and charming and is an extremely powerful and talented wizard. But then Sophie discovers that Howl is under a horrifying curse himself - a curse which threatens his life.

This review has been a long time coming because I re-read this book sometime last year but didn't get around to reviewing it at the time. Howl's Moving Castle is another one of those children's books that I didn't actually get to read as a child and only discovered as an adult. I'd seen the 2004 Studio Ghibli adaptation, had really enjoyed it and, after finding out that it had been loosely based on a book, thought it would be interesting to read the source material. Because I'd very much enjoyed the film I thought I'd be pre-disposed to prefer the changes that were made but in the end I was completely wrong and I ended up loving the book far more! The film's actually been ruined for me a little bit because the book is just so much funnier than the film and its characters are more flawed and are therefore more interesting.

Howl's Moving Castle is an absolutely delightful book. The prose is lovely and is full of literary references and humour. The plot is engaging, imaginative and fun. The romance is subtle but is still very sweet, quirky and funny; and although there's a very British feel to the land of Ingary it's still a wonderfully interesting and magical place. I also really love how Diana Wynne Jones subverts one of the major fairytale tropes in this book - that it's always the youngest child in the family who is the beautiful, pure-hearted one who is destined for wonderful things (Beauty and the BeastCinderella, etc). As I'm an oldest child this was very much appreciated! :D And finally I just really love the characters in this book. At first Sophie's rather shy and insecure but once she gets turned into an old woman she uses it as an opportunity to break free from her unhappy life and becomes far more assertive and self-confident. As fond as I am of Sophie though it's Howl who's my favourite character. Okay so he's a vain, arrogant, shameless womaniser but he's absolutely hilarious and is incredibly endearing! :D And as for the other characters, Calcifer is grumpy but extremely funny, Michael is an adorable sweetheart, and the Witch of the Waste is a sinister and creepy villain.

This book has become a huge favourite of mine and I'd definitely recommend it. I think fans of J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman's children's books will especially love it since DWJ's writing reminds me of both of those authors :)

Rating: 5/5

P.S. Howl's Moving Castle has two sequels which I recently read for the first time - Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways - but I'm not going to write any in-depth reviews for those because... I can't be bothered! Lol! I guess I just don't have very much to say about them. Howl, Sophie and Calcifer all appear in those books and get important roles in them but the books are mainly focused on new characters who simply aren't as compelling and likeable. The sequels are still decent and enjoyable enough but I can't really see myself reading them again. I think I'll just keep going back to the original.


Mònica said...

Cool, Glad you like the book! I really liked the dialogue in the last chapter, where they're being all snarky at each other but you can still tell that they're in love.
My sister read this before me, and she kept reading me all the super bizarre lines that make no sense out of context, lol!
"Put his head back on, he looks terrible like that."

Hannah said...

Monica - Thank you! And hahaha, you must have been like "What on EARTH are you reading?!" when your sister kept reading out those lines :D

Lianne @ said...

Wonderful review! Like you I also got around to reading the book after having watched the Studio Ghibli adaptation and greatly enjoying it (still one of my top favourite movies from the studio/directed by Miyazaki!). In the end I also find I love the book a lot more because it's a lot funnier (Howl is ridiculous but hilarious) and some story threads were much more fleshed out, like the incident with Prince Michael (I hope I got the name right--it's been a while since I've re-read the book myself!).

I also read the two sequels following this book and while I enjoyed them, Howl's Moving Castle is still my favourite by far =D

Hannah said...

Lianne - Thank you! :D I've only seen four Studio Ghibli films (Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke and My Neighbour Totoro) and it's been so long since I saw the last two that I barely remember them. So out of the ones that I do know well I don't like 'Howl's Moving Castle' as much as 'Spirited Away' or DWJ's book but I still think it's a fun and enjoyable film in its own right. I do love the music and the visuals and I think the voice actors all did a great job. But, yeah, I definitely much prefer the funnier tone of the book and there are some things in the movie that don't make a whole lot of sense. Like, why exactly *is* the Witch of the Waste so angry with Howl? And why does Sophie's age keep changing? :S

Yes, HMC is by far the best of the series! I don't think I've heard anyone say otherwise actually!