In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really do 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...
Sophie Hatter has quite sensibly resigned herself to living a quiet and uninteresting hatmaker's life in the land of Ingary. She knows that if she ever goes out to seek her fortune she will be doomed to fail. But one day the Witch of the Waste appears in her hat shop and curses her, turning her into a ninety-year-old woman. Sophie is determined not to live out her remaining years of old age in the hat shop, so with nothing left to do she sets out to seek her fortune.
Her journey is short-lived for it brings her slap-up against the magical moving castle of the fearsome Wizard Howl—a man who is rumored to eat the hearts of young girls. Sophie, being no longer young, figures she is safe and becomes the self-appointed housekeeper of Howl's terribly filthy moving castle.
Amidst the rigors of deep-cleaning, dealing with Howl, frying bacon, and dealing with Howl (who is not at all fearsome, but quite vain and very moody), Sophie makes a bargain with Calcifer, Howl's fire demon. Calcifer claims he knows how to break Sophie's curse, but doing so will require deciphering vague hints from Calcifer, avoiding the Witch of the Waste, and unraveling the mystery of Howl's heart.
Howl's Moving Castle is a witty, clever, and magical novel. Sophie is a fantastic heroine; at the beginning of the book she is starting to become a timid shut-in, but the freedom of being a ninety-year-old woman gives her a great deal of confidence. Howl, though he is in reality extremely clever and thoughtful, attempts to carry on like a spoiled child, and Sophie will have none of it. Their interactions make for some of the best (and funniest) parts of the book.
But the supporting cast of characters also shine, from the dry and sarcastic Calcifer to the wily Witch of the Waste, Sophie's plucky sisters to the lost Wizard Sulliman. The vivid magical land of Ingary comes to life in Dianna Wynne Jones' sparse but rich description, and the narration is full of clever wit and humor. But it's not a book without depth. Sophie and Howl both learn to overcome their fears, their small everyday fears that can be ultimately damaging, like being so afraid to fail at life that you never live it, or being so unwilling to be let down in love that you never give your heart away.
The cleverly written mystery scatters subtle hints and foreshadowing throughout the book, so that even on a second and third read you'll keep finding things you missed the first time. With subtlety, heart, and wit woven through an exciting and humorous magical fantasy adventure, Howl's Moving Castle remains Dianna Wynne Jones' most popular book—with good reason.
A review of Howl's Moving Castle would not be complete without mention of the Hayao Miyazaki film. The story is a good old-fashioned Dianna Wynne Jones mystery fantasy; the movie strips it down to a much simpler narrative and adds steampunk and Japanese anime elements. It deviates most from the book in overall feel of the story. The book has a sparkling, humorous, old English fairy-tale feeling, whereas the movie is darker and less magical, with a more demure Sophie and an angstier Howl.
Review by Lauren Shearer
Lauren Shearer writes words for fun and profit. She also makes films, but everyone knows you can't make a profit doing that. Her other hobby is consistently volunteering way too much of her time. You can read more of her reviews here
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