YotFC REVIEW: Howl’s Moving Castle

Diana Wynne Jones
Howl’s Moving Castle
Harper Collins Children’s books
ISBN-10: 0007299265
ISBN-13: 978- 0007299263
Young adult fantasy
March 5, 2009 (1st in 1986)

Blurb via Amazon:

Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl’s castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there’s far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye.

This is my second review for my Year of the Fantasy Classic Reading Challenge.

I’ve put off writing this review for way too long. It was the first book I finished back in April, and man does it stick. I first became interested in Jones’ work thanks to the ever-book-pimping Book Smugglers. It amazes me that I never read Jones’ books as a kid, but the term “better late than never” applies wholeheartedly in this case. As I sit here remembering how the book made me feel at the time I read it, I realized that it’s still my most favorite book of 2012 so far. In fact, I really need to reread the darn thing because I am in such a crappy reading slump this year. The average of bad reads to good is undeniably favoring the bad.

Howl’s Moving Castle is probably more famous for the animated film version directed by Hayao Miyazaki. It’s how I became acquainted with the story and wasn’t even aware it was based on a  book for some time. While I agree with anyone who mentions that the book and movie are different, I don’t feel there’s a humongous stretch in the movie version from the book. The core feelings and meanings are conveyed very well in the animated film. But. There are bigger plots happening in the book. There are much deeper character developments happening int he book, and I speak as someone who melts over the characters in the film. There’s also a much, much darker atmosphere and sequence of events in the book. Howl’s Moving Castle is unlike many YA novels for me personally because it’s one that I feel reads very well across age lines and doesn’t have a strictly YA tone to it. I think it can appeal just as magically to adults as it can to kids.

This was, actually, a very magical read for me. As soon as I opened the book and began, it was one of those moments when everything literally clicked into place, almost like I could audibly hear it happening. I was hooked from the first line, the author’s voice all but sang to me and I never, ever wanted to put it down to feed the cat, pet the cat, bathe the kidlet, or listen to anything or anyone else except to what was happening on those pages. I felt no middle sag in the book – although there was a bit of an odd plot element with Howl’s family in Wales – but aside from that I never felt pulled from the story or as if something didn’t fit. I felt really entertained. My reading plate was pleasantly full of all kinds of wonderful things.

What I love about the characters: Sophie’s determination. It’s hard to separate her from the Sophie in the film, but I’ll try. They’re pretty similar, but the Sophie from the book has to face much more perilous and dangerous situations, and the romance between her and Howl is a much more subtle device. As much as I love a good romance in books, I really appreciated that Sophie is very much her own character and that she stands on her own as opposed to depending on Howl for her growth. In the movie, it almost feels that if Howl were omitted from the equation, so would Sophie be because her growth in the film depends largely on Howl. I didn’t get this impression with the book. Jones builds a great, strong female character in Sophie, one who’s not afraid to stand up to Howl or handle all the danger and horror that comes her way eventually.

In fact, I suppose that is one major way in which the film and book differ – the film, even though Sophie is obviously a main and strong character, feels more focused on Howl, whereas the book felt more focused on Sophie and how strongly Sophie figures into it all. I like this – a lot. I feel like Howl’s Moving Castle can offer both male and female readers a lot if we have to resort to breaking down reading by gender (not something I agree with all the time), but it does this female’s heart good to read such a wonderful book that has such a great, strong female character who triumphs largely due to her own devices, efforts and adventures. And that’s not to say that, in turn, the male characters were of no import or made no impression, it’s just that it’s nice to see a YA book that doesn’t relegate the main female character into one that must always defer to the main male to figure things out or save the day, etc.

Jones’ skills at worldbuilding made the next biggest impression. While it’s obvious it takes its inspiration from a British/European perspective I felt wholeheartedly like I’d been immersed in a new, unique universe. Books that use any kind of magical system have the challenge of conveying its uniqueness to readers in ways we can understand while at the same time feeling that it’s something new that we haven’t read before – whether it actually is or not. I feel like Jones borrows just enough elements readers can identify with and feel knowledgeable about to be drawn in, but then she does something, for lack of better terms, magical with it all that transcends into a whole new world to explore. As any good worldbuilding should. We get to discover it all, too, through the best method possible, and that is through the characters.

I feel like this is a pretty vague review, but that’s my fault since I read it back in April. Considering that, what’s important is that it has remained so much in my heart since then and I truly feel as if this is one of the books that shapes how I feel about reading overall. That it is something to be treasured because writers like Jones existed and still do. That we don’t have to settle for the same story time and time again, that there is something unique and splendid out there. This book is one of them. I’m so glad I finally discovered it.

I wanted to ask a favor and that is a call-out to all Diana Wynne Jones fans – which of her books should I read next (This book appears to be part of a series but I’ve heard the others might not be as good?)? And if you haven’t read Jones’ work, I, obviously, highly recommend you give this one a chance, male or female, young or old or in between.

P.S. What do you think about the British cover? I liked it so much that I ordered it specifically. I believe Amazon U.S. shows the U.S. version. But don’t quote me.

Rating: Five Blissful Scoops

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  1. Love your review. Miyazaki’s film was good, but the book – awesome. Like you said, Sophie was much stronger, the story darker, and I was sad so many characters didn’t make it into the film. Although, the film’s Calcifer is adorable. Lol.

    Dogsboy is one of my ultimate favorite of all books. Ever. Makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you hug that book and never want to let go. I also liked the Derkholm duet, but The Tough Guide To Fantasyland always makes me laugh. It’s like a dictionary for the overly cliche fantasy world and I love it. Ok, I need to stop before I list everything…

    Also to follow redkiteshu, moving castle is the first of three books, but the other two books only have Sophie, Howl and co as secondary/minor characters.

  2. I saw the movie (I think Princess Mononoke is probably his most famous movie, though–just my opinion of course :), but I never read the book. I think my library doesn’t have it, so that put an end to that.

  3. Personally, I liked all three books in the trilogy, but admit that the first one is the best (but am a bit wary whether my preference is not coloured by having watched and loving the Miyazaki film.
    I have yet to read anything beyond that by her, but from what I’ve seen, Tough Guide to Fantasyland is likely a classic and Archer’s Goon is by many recommended as her best novel.

  4. Considering that you read this in April, I think you did an excellent job! I’m so happy to see you finally get some words out on this one. I believe I actually read it at about the same time, largely because Sarah Rees Brennan mentioned them as being better than Harry Potter to her. I too had the ‘where have you been all my life?’ reaction.

    I actually read the book before seeing the movie, so of course I’m quite partial to the book (thought the movie was good). I agree that I like the agency of book Sophie better than movie Sophie, and I like that the romance just kind of sneaks up on them in the book.

    Love the thoughts and memories reading this review brings up, I may have to pick up the third in the series on my next library trip!

  5. Pingback: Book Haul and Weekend Recap (26) | Bunbury in the Stacks Book Haul and Weekend Recap (26) | One has the right to Bunbury anywhere one chooses. Every serious Bunburyist knows that. ~ Oscar Wilde

  6. I’m rereading this book this year. <3 After reading it last year, I fell in total love. Jones is just…sigh. Sigh. This book – as well as the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane, Robin McKinley's books, and Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic books (though I've only read the first three so far) elicit the So-Better-Than-Harry-Potter sigh from me. I can never talk to you enough about HMC, haha.

  7. As a fan of Howl’s Moving Castle, I think you’d like Oblivion Island!


    “An animated romp for the young and the young at heart! This internationally acclaimed feature film blends Japanese folklore and storybook charm reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland into an exhilarating tale sure to amaze animation fans of all ages. Sixteen-year-old Haruka is on a mission to find her mirror—a precious childhood gift from her late mother that has disappeared. On her search, she follows a strange fox-like creature to Oblivion Island, a mystical world overflowing with once-cherished items taken from their neglectful owners. Trouble follows Haruka and her new friend Teo at every turn as they contend with the island’s overbearing ruler, who will stop at nothing to use the mirror for his own sinister plan!”

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