Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Howl's Moving Castle (Diana Wynne Jones)

Howl's Moving Castle is a book that I wish I would have read in my "ages 8-12 fantasy" phase, because I'm pretty sure I would have loved it. In fact, I did try to read it years ago and got bored by the slow opening (one must remember that I was only a wee lad and generally was interested only in attention-grabbing openings).

Our focus in this children's novel is Sophie Hatter, a young girl who works (unsurprisingly) in a hat shop in the magical land of Ingary (this is the slow opening: chapter one is called "In Which Sophie Talks to Hats"). Sophie is cursed by the evil Witch of the Waste, her body rapidly aged to one of a 90-year-old (give or take a few years), and she goes off in search of the fearsome Wizard Howl, who she believes can remove the spell.

Pretending to be a cleaning lady, Sophie takes up residence in the titular moving castle with the wizard (who turns out to be not so much evil as dashingly handsome and something of a heartbreaker), his apprentice Michael and the wizard's fire demon, Calcifer, who is under a contract with Howl and promises to break the Witch's curse on Sophie if she can break his contract. And so begins the rest of the novel.

And what a delightful story it is! I am embarrassed to admit that I have never read a Diana Wynne Jones book before, and what a shame that I haven't. The events transpire in a fascinating, engaging landscape that is described in a perfect balance between "can picture in my mind" and "want to know more about it". The characters are incredibly engaging and well-defined; they never feel stereotypical or dull. Jones sustains the perfect amount of kook and wacky--it's enough to remind us that she had fun writing it and we're having fun reading it without overpowering the book and making it a silly comedy.

I can say nothing bad about the character and world creation, which are very near perfect. My issue is with the plot: everything is excellent up until the last 50 pages or so, when Jones begins to throw everything together in a madcap attempt to resolve everything fairly quickly. Too many things conclude too easily--SPOILER--for example, the contract between Howl and Calcifer appears to be pretty central to the plot. And it goes unbroken until almost the very end of the book when, poof, Sophie suddenly solves the problem. Jones took her time building up the book as a whole, and so it feels disappointing in moments like this one when it feels like she is hurrying us along to the ending (which features some other questionable outcomes regarding the magical nature of a certain character and the evident "true love" between two characters that I didn't feel existed until we were told it did).

But these are just small things. This is a fantastic book, especially for the age group Diana Wynne Jones had in mind when she wrote it. Howl's Moving Castle is a clever novel that will delight and awe whose only setback is an ending that occasionally feels poorly put together. I have no reservations recommending it for the young, eager reader.

My Rating: 4/5
Howl's Moving Castle on Goodreads
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