I have to admit it took me too long to discover Diana Wynne Jones. But, the important thing is that I did (thanks, Neil Gaiman!). And I ended up reading a non-fiction book by her first – The Tough Guide to Fantasyland – which was all kinds of funny and inventive. Here was someone who had a sparkling sense of humour, who was intelligent and sharply observant and insightful about the world, about us humans, who wasn’t above the occasional tough love and sharp wit. Most importantly, someone who believed in the power of fantasy and imagination, and understood it. And fantasy clearly understood and embraced her, if Howl’s Moving Castle is any indication.
Yep, I began my DWJ fictional journey with the book that everyone I spoke to who knows and loves the author recommended. The book that loosely inspired Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s award-winning, Academy-award-nominated animation (which I now cannot wait to watch). And I gobbled it up in three sittings over a day and a half, before putting in library holds for the next two in the series.
This story takes place mostly in the magical kingdom of Ingary. Eighteen-year-old Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three sisters living in the village of Market Chipping. After their father unexpectedly dies, stepmother Fanny (Martha, the youngest, is her biological daughter; Sophie and Lettie are her stepdaughters) takes over the family hat-making business and takes on Sophie as her apprentice, while Lettie and Martha are apprenticed off to a bakery and a witch respectively.
Sophie, as the eldest, is resigned to the fairytale law which states that the eldest child will never be successful.
“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 three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.”
She begins to believe that she’s plain and boring. But, following an encounter with the dreaded Witch of the Waste, Sophie is turned into an old woman. The spell physically forbids her from revealing that she’s under one, unless the other person guesses or already knows. Old Sophie ends up at the castle of the wizard Howl, who is rumoured to chase after pretty young girls and suck out their souls or eat their hearts. There, she strikes a bargain with his fire-demon Calcifer who has a contract with Howl that he wants her to break (he’s only allowed to give her hints about what the clause’s main contract is).
If Sophie Hatter has any chance to break her curse, she’s going to have to not only be inventive and step out of her comfort zone, but also be open to learning and accepting things about herself; qualities she never knew she possessed (including magic), strength she never knew she had. Along the way, Sophie will also discover that appearances can be deceptive and there’s more to Howl, his castle and Calcifer than she previously imagined.
“It is quite a risk to spank a wizard for getting hysterical about his hair.”
This is a fun, rollicking, imaginative adventure to be enjoyed no matter what your age or background. The language is simple but engaging, the plot moves along at an absorbing pace, the stakes are appropriately high. There is also much whimsy and silliness, which is an element I particularly enjoyed.
Some parts of the story are a bit confusing, but I didn’t mind having things clarified later (or in case of some stuff, not but I’m holding out they will be explained in the next books in the series). Other than that, I have no complaints about this delightfully charming book. Go read it and then, like me, rush to the library to get The Castle in the Air, its companion novel, and The House of Many Ways, its sequel.
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