Sophie is a young woman from the village of Market Chipping. After the death of her father, her step-mother asks her and her two sisters, Lettie and Martha, to acquire apprenticeships to help with the home finances. Lettie works in a local pastry shop while Martha is passed along to her mother’s friend, Mrs. Fairfax, to be her assistant. Sophie remains in the family’s hat shop, making the wares and helping the customers. One day, she is approached by an elderly witch who enchants her out of a jealous spite. The Witch of the Waste believes that Sophie is the girl who has stolen the Wizard Howl’s heart, and her revenge is swift. She changes Sophie into an old woman and leaves her to her cursed fate.
Sophie leaves her home, hoping to keep the enchantment from those she loves, and flees into the Waste. Shortly thereafter, she arrives at the Wizard Howl’s moving castle. She enters, befriends Michael, Howl’s apprentice, and Calcifer, a fire demon who controls the mobile home. She makes a bargain with Calcifer by which she plans to break his curse and vice versa and sets out to make herself indispensable around the castle. It isn’t until she cleans the house from top to bottom that Howl decides to keep her on as his housekeeper.
Howl’s Moving Castle takes a lot of older fairy tale and folklore tropes and makes them anew. The strength of Jones's writing comes from her ability to say a lot with only a little, for her really inventive snippets of wit. She knows her craft but she also knows the basics of fantasy mythology and she uses all these to her advantage. It’s not surprising that other better known fantasists such as Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling have regarded her with high praise. There’s a subtlety to her writing, a precise nuance that speaks volumes of her skill. She has the magic ability to make the reader laugh and tear up within the same sentence, sometime within words of each other. If there is a high artisan in the pantheon of Young Reader’s Fantasy, than that position is no better awarded to her.
The characters are always the heart of a Diana Wynne Jones novel and this book is no exception. Within you have a mish-mash of creatures and people who all work to make this story come about. We have Sophie, a stridently honest girl who knows that she has her own limits and still pushes through them with every determined action. We have Howl, a supremely superficial wizard who knows he is the best and never lets anyone forget that, and we can’t help love his cockiness. We have Calcifer, a brooding fire demon stuck in a life-or-death contract that no one can break him free from. And we have Michael, a typical moody teenager envious of Howl’s skills with magic and women alike. Beyond that we have a host of enchanting characters – a scarecrow come to life, a dog-man named Percival, a scathing school mistress who turns Howl’s head, two place-swapped sisters, a missing court wizard, a vanished Prince, and a modern day Welsh family of nieces and nephews. There’s a lot of camaraderie in this team of people, a give-and-take quality of family and kinship that extends beyond simple friendship. These characters bind with one another, grow together, and endure terrible endeavors. They meld as a family in the best way for the reader to witness. They accept, and are likewise equally annoyed, by each other’s character flaws.
This is one of those books, and one of those authors, that any fantasy aficionado is sure to appreciate from the youngest to the elderly. Have a 7-year-old who wants to read Harry Potter (or has done so numerous times already)? Then hand her Dianna Wynne Jones. Have an 80-year-old who loves a clever tale, this is sure to do for them as well. In my case, I read this book over a decade ago and only reread it again recently. It’s just as chimerical, imaginative, and fresh as I remember it, and I couldn’t be happier. Diana Wynne Jones lives on my bookshelf with pride and I encourage everyone who has a hint of whimsy in them to read her as well. I cannot say enough good things. She is my heart of hearts when it comes to beloved authors.
5 out of 5 fallen stars for this enchanting book.
For more reviews by Krys, please visit her personal book blog at http://bibliopunkkreads.com/ .