Howl’s Moving Castle is a fantasy novel of 1986 aimed at children and young adults, but is perhaps better known as an anime by Studio Ghibli. I myself saw the anime film last year before discovering that it was based on a book - this annoyed me greatly since I always like to read the book before seeing an adaptation! However, in the case of Howl’s Moving Castle, the differences between the book and film are so vast that it hardly makes a difference and if anything I would suggest watching the film first in order to avoid being disappointed by the numerous departures that were made from the book. I am not here to focus on the differences between the film and the book in this review though; I am going to review the novel only.
The villagers of Market Chipping in the kingdom of Ingary live in fear of the wizard Howl who lives in a moving castle nearby, as he is rumoured to eat the hearts of young girls. Once her father dies, 18-year-old Sophie Hatter resigns herself to a dull life running the dreary family hat shop while her stepmother gads about town spending lots of money, including Sophie’s wages, every day. Her two younger sisters are sent off to pursue more exciting careers - Lettie is to learn to be a witch while Martha is to be a baker. One night, working late in the hat shop, Sophie is accosted by a disgruntled customer who turns out to be the fearsome Witch of the Waste - confusing Sophie for someone else (one of the many puzzles contained within the novel) she puts a curse on her, transforming her into an old woman! Part of the curse is that Sophie cannot tell anyone that she is under a spell, which makes seeking help rather difficult and puts poor Sophie in a terrible predicament. With limited options, Sophie decides to set out and see if she can find the witch and break the curse. However, she stumbles upon Howl’s moving castle - thinking her situation cannot get any worse, and with night rapidly approaching, Sophie risks her heart being eaten and enters the castle hoping the wizard might help her. Little does she know that her adventure is only just beginning...
Howl’ s Moving Castle is a really fun, delightful book. There are several moments of humour, mostly thanks to Howl’s flamboyant temperament and his incredible ability to throw tantrums - in particular there is a scene in the chapter entitled ‘In which Howl expresses his feelings with green slime’, wherein he gets more than just a bit upset over dying his hair the wrong colour. An original and fun aspect of Howl’s Moving Castle is that it is one large puzzle - Calcifer, Howl’s fire demon, agrees to lift Sophie’s curse if she can figure out how to break the contract between himself and Howl, which the pair forged years ago - as like Sophie, Calcifer and Howl cannot talk about the terms of their spell. Numerous clues on how to break the contract are littered throughout the narrative, giving the reader subtle hints along with Sophie, so it’s fun to see if you can spot them all. On top of this are smaller mysteries to ponder, such as what has happened to the missing Prince of the kingdom, making for a uniquely enjoyable, puzzling and mystifying read.
The characters are wonderful, although I have a particular soft spot for mean-spirited Calcifer. Sophie is very realistic - she makes mistakes and some bad decisions, but she also has a big heart. Before she is transformed into an old woman, Sophie is timid, undemanding and has accepted her small lot in life - she is the eldest of three after all! Once she has been cursed however, her character alters - old Sophie is bold and bossy, busting into Howl’s castle and taking charge, cleaning the entire living space against Howl’s will, and bullying Calcifer into doing whatever she wants. Howl, the likeable but flawed wizard, is a lot of fun. He is an eccentric, vain drama queen and is prone to childish outbursts.
One slight negative is that the conclusion feels a little bit rushed, but I put this down to it being a children’s book, where stories tend to conclude rather abruptly. In addition to this, the plot is perhaps a touch too complex for very young children, who might find it quite confusing, especially towards the end.
Howl’s Moving Castle is an enchanting, original tale with an imaginative plot, wonderful vivid characters, plenty of humour, puzzles, magic, romance and much more. Don’t be put off by this being a children’s book, as it has something for everyone and is a real delight to read. Although Howl’s Moving Castle is a standalone novel, Jones wrote two loose sequels: Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways, as well as numerous other works for youngsters and others for adults, which - as of reading this novel - I can’t wait to get my hands on.
My other reviews by Diana Wynne Jones:
My other reviews by Diana Wynne Jones: