Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Review by Corinne Donnelly
When Howl’s Moving Castle pops up in conversation, most people think of the Studio Ghibli film. Surprisingly, it was a beloved fantasy book written by Diana Wynne Jones decades before Hayao Miyazaki adapted it to the screen. It’s also one of the few instances where I can honestly say that the book and the film, while vastly different, are both equally enjoyable.
Sophie Hatter, the eldest of three sisters, lives in Ingary, where it has been established that the oldest child in every family is the most prone to a dull and ordinary life. While Sophie’s sisters, Lettie and Martha, run off to begin internships in magic and baking, she resigns herself to helping her stepmother manage the family hat shop. Due to an unfortunate misunderstanding, Sophie’s life takes an unusual turn when the Witch of the Waste sets a curse on her. The curse starts Sophie on her own journey, which eventually leads her to the infamous wizard Howl and his moving castle.
Jones possesses the uncanny ability to write realistic characters within a highly fantastical setting. Sophie may be physically cursed, but her deepest struggles have always been low self-confidence and the misguided attitude that she has no control over her own destiny. Howl is a powerful wizard, but he is also vain, pretentious, and a bit of a coward. Howl’s fire demon, Calcifer, has no corporeal form, yet articulates some of the most human insights of all of the characters. By the end of the novel, each character learns something about themselves, and since the reader can relate to their faults and quirks, he or she gains understanding too.
Even if you’ve seen the film, the plot is different enough that that there are bound to be moments where you’re genuinely surprised by something. There are multiple twists scattered throughout the novel that add quite a lot of entertainment value. Jones certainly keeps her readers on their toes. Sophie’s sisters, Lettie and Martha, also play significant roles in the book with their own subplots and romances. Howl’s apprentice, Michael (Markl in the film), Prince Justin, and the king’s wizard, Suliman, have larger roles as well, and they are crucial to the events that transpire at the end of the book.
As an added bonus, especially for literary aficionados, keep an eye out for the abundance of allusions interspersed in dialogue, setting, and character names. Hint: Many are Shakespearean and Arthurian in nature.
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones is first and foremost a coming of age story that just so happens to be set in a magical kingdom. As characters, Sophie and Howl are intriguing both together and apart, since they are so different, yet complement each other beautifully. If you love the movie, you will adore the book, and vice versa. Make a weekend of it and devour one after the other. Calcifer would certainly approve.