Book Review: ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ by Diana Wynne Jones

Author: Diana Wynne Jones

Originally Published in 1986

Review by Miriam Atkinson

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones is one of those books I’d heard about for years but never actually got around to reading. When I finally picked up a copy of the book I wasn’t sure the story would live up to the hype around it. Had I set my expectations too high for the story contained within these covers to live up to?

The answer: I honestly thought this was a brilliant book and I can’t believe it took me so long to get round to reading it.

Howl’s Moving Castle follows the misadventures of Sophie Hatter. After she is cursed by the Witch of the Waste and transformed into an elder lady, Sophie seeks refuge with the Wizard Howl in the hope he can remove her curse. The problem: The curse prevents Sophie from telling anyone she is not as she appears. Taking it upon herself to try and organise Howl, his young assistant Michael, and the moving castle, Sophie is forced to ally with the magical fire Calcifer. Calcifer offers to help Sophie in exchange for a favour but, with potential dangers and disagreeable problems everywhere, will her curse ever be lifted?

From the very first chapter I loved the narrative voice Diana Wynne Jones chose for the novel. The story is written in the third person and told from protagonist’s Sophie’s perspective. Despite this Sophie is an unusually self-aware narrator who believes life and people should follow certain paths because that is what stereotypically happens. For example Sophie believes it is her duty to be a responsible sister and to stay home rather than have adventures – because as the elder sister this is the role she should play.

I was reminded of characters such as Susan from The Narnia Chronicles by C. S. Lewis and Anthea from Edith Nesbit’s Five Children and It series. In both cases these elder sisters are portrayed as the ‘sensible sibling’ who is the least adventurous and the least likely to take risks. Through Sophie I sensed that Wynne Jones enjoyed poking fun at this particular trope as, despite her continued reluctance, it is Sophie that has the biggest adventure and the most magic in her life in comparison to her younger sisters.

There is a running theme throughout the story of things not being as they first appear. The prime example is Sophie with the curse hiding the fact that she is a young woman rather than an elderly Grandmother. The theme continues with Howl and the castle. Before Sophie encounters them in person, Wynne Jones makes sure to let the reader know the dangerous and ominous reputation of both man and building. This then leads to the amusing contrast when we and Sophie find out that, in reality, they are far less terrifying. Despite his powers, Howl also has tendencies of vanity and immaturity whereas the imposing castle is smaller and more homely on the inside compared to its dark exterior. This is yet another example of Wynne Jones turning stereotypes and preconceived notions on their heads.

If I had to give the novel one criticism it would be its rushed final chapter. With great build-up, I personally felt that all of the plot threads were wrapped up quite quickly at the end. To further this swift resolution, multiple characters quickly declared their undying love for each other and were swiftly coupled off. Perhaps if the love story resolutions were a bit more spaced out in the final few chapters this particular part of the ending wouldn’t have felt quite so hurried.

Irregardless I was still really impressed with how Howl’s Moving Castle blends comedic elements with serious tones. The characters were instantly endearing and it’s no surprise that Diana Wynne Jones was and is still such a popular author purely based on how well her story flows and fits together.

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