Review: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

 Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 13

3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Diana Wynne Jones’s Howls Moving Castle came about when a young boy asked the author to write a story about a castle that moved.  Knowing that ahead of time added an interesting element to the experience, as it was fun to see how that one small, random request morphed in Jones’s imagination and eventually came out as this very entertaining and surprisingly meaningful book.  The story is about a young woman, Sophie Hatter, who is the eldest of three sisters.  The book immediately takes on a satirical tone, simultaneously mimicking and mocking the literary fantasy (and particularly fairy tale) traditions of yore.  Sophie and her family live in the Kingdom of Ingary, where conventional fairy tale tropes are in effect facts of life.  As the eldest sister, Sophie knows she must take care of her family first – probably living to become an old maid while her sisters get to go to the balls, court dashing princes, and study the magical arts.  Things begin to change, though, when Sophie is mistaken for her sister by the Witch of the Waste. She is cursed into appearing like a haggardly old woman and she soon leaves town to find a cure, bringing her to Howl’s moving castle.  There she meets Howl’s apprentice, Michael, and learns that she has certain magical talent of her own.  She eventually helps Howl in a final show-down between good and evil (or, perhaps, bad and worse?) against the Witch of the Waste, and learns that her curse might not have been all it –or she- appeared to be.

4 – Characters extraordinarily well-developed.

Although a traditional young fantasy tale in many ways, Howl’s Moving Castle is very much about a young woman’s coming-of-age.  Just as Sophie is learning to appreciate herself – seeing herself as attractive for the first time and exchanging drab gray clothing for brighter hues, she is cursed and becomes a gnarled old woman.  Jones is exploring the nature of individuality and self-worth; only by becoming this older woman can Sophie begin to understand and appreciate who she is – a strong-willed, confident, powerful individual.  She begins to realize that she is not destined to be just “the eldest sibling” as tradition would have it.  Sophie discovers that she is in command of her own fate and that those around her, including her family and new friends, will love and respect her all the more as she embraces who she is and learns to respect herself.  The other characters in the story are equally deep, though they may appear flippant or standardized at first glance.  Wizard Howl, for instance, is an excellently drawn Byronic hero.  Seduction of young maidens is his modus operandi, so much so, in fact, that he is feared throughout the kingdom as the wizard who eats young girls’ hearts (taken literally by the people – which makes him a feared character, although in reality he is quite harmless and endearing, if not more than a bit vain).  The reader discovers through Howl’s assistant Michael, that Howl has never truly been in love with any of the women he has courted – and he knows this because Howl always looks so incredibly dashing when he goes out on the prowl.  Near to the end of the story, though, we realize poor Howl must have fallen head-over-heels for someone because, for the first time, he is totally disheveled. Ultimately, the characters are much deeper than they first appear to be; when the reader sits back and examines their purpose and their connections to other characters, the development of and sub-layers for each, but particularly the major characters, is quite striking.

3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

One minor point of contention for me was that the smartness of the story did not quite seem to gel with the middle grade reading level of the prose.  It is, after all, a middle grade book – so making it readable by the prospective age group is absolutely paramount.  While I understand the primary audience is young readers, I couldn’t help but be a tiny (tiny) bit put-off by the sparse style and simple language, when the story itself is so witty and multi-layered.  Still, this is the smallest of small complaints because, in reality, Jones does what she sets out to do; she has produced a well-written, well-constructed, well-paced story for young readers, with added elements that give the book richness which older readers will enjoy and appreciate too.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Perhaps the most endearing aspect of this book, for book lovers, is that it is rife with literary allusions.  Jones references a plethora of authors and stories from the fantasy canon, including J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, and Arthurian Legend, and also from British literature, including Shakespeare and John Donne.  These little gems are delightful for those who recognize them, but also work well in the storyline in general, so young readers will appreciate their presence at face-value.  This type of sub-context, coupled with the major themes of love and destiny (Sophie is grappling with the fates, fighting to break the fairy tale mold placed on her as eldest sister, though on the surface she has seemed to resign herself to the traditional role) makes for a fascinatingly and surprisingly rich story for young (and older) readers.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Middle Grade

Interest: Fantasy, Magic, Family, Coming-of-Age, Sibling Rivalry, Love, Perception, Fairy Tale, Satire, Jealousy, Destiny.

Notable Quotes:

“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 the three.  Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.”

“I assure you, my friends, I am cone sold stober.”

“I must apologize for trying to bite you so often. In the normal way, I wouldn’t dream of setting teeth in a fellow countryman.”

This book was recommended to me by Amanda.

7 Comments on “Review: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

  1. I’ve read this about… I would say well over ten times, and this review makes me want to re-read it again. I haven’t done so in a year or two and I’m in a bit of a reader’s blah at the moment too.


  2. This book has been on my radar for years now but I’ve not actually read it. It’s a favorite book of many of my favorite fanfiction writers, so one of these days I’ll need to settle down with it and see what I’ve been missing. Thanks for the review.


  3. I so enjoyed this the first time I read it. I only wish I would have discovered it when I was younger, as I am sure it would have been a fast favorite.


  4. I love Howl’s Moving Castle! It’s the Diana Wynne Jones book I always recommend to people who are new to her work. Howl’s such a fun character, totally one of my favorites in all of Diana Wynne Jones. I love it when he falls into misery and despair when Sophie cleans up his beauty products.


  5. The Miyazaki adaptation of this book has always been one of my favourite movies. I’d heard his adaptation was very, very different from the book so I was never too interested in picking up the novel, but your review has changed my mind. Adding it to the list!


  6. Well of course you know I adored this book. Interestingly, I listened to it on audio, and didn’t notice the sparseness of the prose at all. In fact, I didn’t feel like it was middle grade at all. I felt like it was an all-ages sort of book, and if I had to classify it, as YA (which is how it’s marketed in my library and all the bookstores I’ve been to). Still, people of all ages seem to love it, from little kids well below middle grade to people past retirement. The two sequels (including Castle in the Air, which your “I can’t abide” quote comes from, rather than Howl’s Moving Castle) feel far younger and less universal than Howl.

    I’m glad that you liked it, and that you saw the depth of the characters, who all really do seem very flippant in the beginning.


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