Book Review: Howl's Moving Castle
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Plot summary: After the terrible Witch of the Waste turned her into a 90-year-old lady, formerly 18-year-old Sophie Hatter is forced to seek her fortune on the road. She takes shelter in Howl's moving castle, Wizard Howl having a reputation as bad as the Witch - he hates young women's heart, they say! - but Sophie should be safe on this point now. In the castle, she meets Calcifer, the fire demon, and makes a bargain with him: he'll lift her spell when she breaks the contract he signed with Howl. In the house also lives 15-year-old Michael, Howl's apprentice. Sophie starts working there as a cleaning lady, but things get more and more complex by the minute. The book ends up being a giant jigsaw puzzle of mixed spells that Howl seems to be particularly unwilling to untangle.
For those who thought that Howl's Moving Castle sprang from Hayao Miyazaki's imagination, think again! It was originally a book, written almost 20 years before the Japanese motion picture aired, by a British writer, Diana Wynne Jones. Most of her books were written for children and teenagers and take place in magical worlds.
Howl's Moving Castle is the first book of a series of 3, although it is muuuch better than its two sequels - *ultra partial mode ON*. I say I'm going to be partial because this book is one of my favorite EVER, along Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Of course, at first, those two novels don't seem to have much in common, except that they were written by English female writers, but as I write this article, I'm starting to see other connexions: in both novels, the main protagonist is a (around) 18-year-old girl who ends up misjudging a man on their first encounter, and kind of sticks to her position even when presented with a fait accompli, i.e. that the man is not such a horrible and annoying person after all. Thus, both novels show how Sophie and Lizzie finally get past their original prejudices and learn to be honest with themselves about their own feelings.
This being said, Howl's Moving Castle is by no means about making the best match and social elevation through matrimony, it is about witches, wizards, fire demons, spells and green slime. Everything in the book is magical, or almost, as even Sophie learns that even she has magical powers. As I don't want to spoil the story for you, I have to remain quite vague about it all. But what impressed me most the first time I read it was that Diana Wynne Jones intertwined so many elements of the plot that I really didn't understand how she was going to untangle everything in the end - but she did! Each element has a specific function, some sentences Sophie utters at the beginning of the book are shown to have had consequences around the very end, objects or spells that seem to be only plot ornaments end up being important features of the main jigsaw... and Howl's mind is only revealed at the very end
I must be honest, I saw the Japanese motion picture before I first read the book, and it is because I literally fell in love with the animated Howl that I decided to read the book. And reading the book really helped me understand the film better, although the film departs greatly from its source material. Miyazaki merged characters - Mrs Pentstemmon and Wizard Sulliman in one - and changed the course of the plot: he invented the war and changed Prince Justin's story; he took away big parts of the story, such as Howl's going to Wales; he changed the Witch's intentions and actions, and changed what befalls her as well; Sophie's breaking the contract does make sense in the book (in the film, I never really understand what prevents Calcifer and Howl from breaking it, why it has to be Sophie...); and many other changes... Long story short, Miyazaki's story is very complex and explores many dimensions that are absent in the book, but I believe the book is equally rich, albeit in different matters. Amongst other things, the book explores changing perspective - Sophie thus goes from finding Howl, who is "in his twenties", old, to calling a 50-year-old customer young; Martha and Lettie exchange places; Fanny finds her life as a widow not very satisfying altogether -, what a person will or won't do and why - why Howl won't look for Prince Justin, why Sophie will or won't leave the castle... -, predestination...
And of course, just like in the film, Howl is - according to very partial me - sooooo irresistible! Not everyone would think that, I guess, Sophie among them, as he is a mood-changing, capricious, fickle, vain [insert adj] "slitherer-outer", but what Sophie refuses to acknowledge for a long time is that he is also, in his own way, very considerate about her: he takes her in as a membre of the castle without a protestation and never threatens to throw her out even after she destroyed his suits or did a thousand other things that annoyed him greatly, such as being nosy all the time; when moving the castle, he consults her as to what their new business should be; and *spoiler on* he secretly cares about everything he feigns not to care about *spoiler off*.
My only disappointment at the book is that it made me want all of Diana Wynne Jones's books to be as good, and I really think they are not. Although they all feature considerations about magic that I find rather interesting - how do you perform magic? this is never clearly explained, but you can also fail and the consequences can be interresting or funny - their plot and characters are very far from being as interesting as in Howl's Moving Castle. Even in Howl's Moving Castle's sequels, Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways, which feature characters such as Sophie and Howl at some point, they are not the same anymore and their relationship isn't very interesting. I even found that they were turned into exaggerated comical characters, with silly stories about their baby that I didn't care for. In the "Chrestomanci" series, I quite liked Magicians of Caprona, and the tangled spirit can be found a little in Witch Week. What I don't understand about Diana Wynne Jones's work is that I found some of her characters really mean - a boy is bullied in Witch Week; the main antagonist in Charmed Life turns out to be Eric's orphaned big sister, a mere child or teenager he used to be very close to... And I definitely didn't like Merlin's Conspiracy.
But enough with unpleasant things, and let's go back to what really matters!...:
Tags : England, magic, humour, book
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