Howl's Moving Castle
by Diana Wynne Jones
Inspired, according to the dedication page, by an idea a child suggested to her when she was visiting a school, this terrific story is the first of a two-book series which continues in Castle in the Air
It takes place in the magical land of Ingaria, where there are wizards, witches, handsome princes, seven-league boots, and so on. It turns all the fairy tale conventions upside-down, however. For instance, of three pretty daughters of a not-very-well-off hat maker, the oldest (Sophie) believes any attempt on her part to "seek her own fortune" is doomed to failure, by the laws of the world she lives in. But she does not seem to notice the powerful gift that she has, of talking life into inanimate things (like the hats she trims, to begin with). In a way she doesn't even realize, she is a powerful sorceress. And it takes a full-on curse from the wickedest, powerfullest sorceress in the world-the Witch of the Waste-to send her on her way to destiny.
Sophie's destiny involves being turned into a 90-year-old woman, insinuating herself into the moving castle of the notorious wizard Howl as a cleaning woman, and making a bargain with the fire demon who lives in Howl's fireplace. Her side of the bargain is to break the contract between the demon (Calcifer) and the wizard, which is bound to turn out badly for both of them if someone doesn't break it. The problem is, she has to figure out for herself what the contract is. Calcifer's side of the bargain is to return Sophie to her former young, pretty shape.
In the meantime, the Horrible Howl turns out not to be the awful creature of evil she imagined. In fact, he's a vain young dandy who spends most of his time wooing women, then dropping them like blown dandelions the instant they fall in love with him. Most of his magic seems to be done by Calcifer and, when it comes to everyday work that keeps the cash flowing, a teenaged apprentice named Michael Fisher. This sort of bent magical family, then, lives together in a two bedroom, one bathroom house whose door, depending on which way the four-colored doorknob is facing, opens out onto four different places: a street in the posh capital city, another street in a seaside village, a moving castle that floats around the hills outside the quaint little town Sophie comes from, and another place that comes as rather a surprise.
As Sophie becomes more of a fixture in the wizard's castle, she becomes more and more involved in his feud with the Witch of the Waste. Part of which curse involves an imaginative use of an actual John Donne poem. Sophie also grows more and more irritated with Howl's philandering ways. Oddly, she accepts being an old lady, sooner than she accepts the difficult and powerful role she has to play in the events that explode around her.
It's another story I don't want to say too much about, because part of the enjoyment is being surprised now and then. It's a fascinating yarn, full of fairy-tale magic, action and adventure, romance and laugh-out-loud humor. Most of all, it is very, very funny. And there's some intriguing mystery in it too, as bits and pieces of the Donne curse unfold, and the final confrontation between good and evil draws near. There's also some good suspense, because it's never quite clear whether Howl is going to end up on the side of good or evil, and on that hangs the happiness, not to mention the lives, of several people.
I think Howl is a wonderful character, and the way true love sneaks up on some people is very entertaining too! Plus, who can say no to a story that contains a scarecrow come to life, a man turned into a dog, a talking horse, a drunk scene, and chapter titles such as "In which Howl expresses his feelings with green slime," "In which Sophie blackens Howl's name," and "In which a Royal Wizard catches cold."
Recommended Age: 12+
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