Book Review: Howl’s Moving Castle

“In the land of Ingary where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of the three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.”

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Written by British author Diana Wynne Jones, and first published in 1986, Howl’s Moving Castle is the first of three books in Jone’s Howl series, followed by 1990’s Castle in the Air and 2008’s House of Many Ways.

For Sophie Hatter of Market Chipping, Ingrary, being born the oldest of three is only the beginning of her troubles, since the oldest child is doomed to fail first. When Sophie’s father dies, her stepmother, Fanny, takes Sophie and her two sisters out of school. But whilst Lettie and Martha go off to become apprentices, Sophie is left with no one to talk to but the hats she creates. One day, the Witch of the Waste makes a visit to Sophie’s shop, and leaves Sophie under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance of breaking it is to find the ever-moving castle in the hills and plead with the castle’s owner, the heartless Wizard Howl. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie makes a deal with Howl’s fire demon, Calcifer: if Sophie can break his contract with Howl, then he will fix her curse. Finding herself caught up in Howl and the Witch’s conflict, Sophie soon discovers that there’s far more to Howl — and herself — than first meets the eye.

The following post is a review of only the book. You can read my review of the film adaptation in comparison to the book here.

When it comes to book adaptations, I tend to try to read the book before I see the film. But whilst Studio Ghibli‘s 2004 film of the same name has been one of my favourite films for a long time, I never knew that it was based on a book. And oh boy, I was missing out.

Written 30 years ago now, Diana Wynne Jones creates an old-fashioned kind of fantasy full of adventure. With wizards, demons, magic spells, and moving castles, Howl’s Moving Castle is an original and imaginative story that certainly takes you on a journey or two.

Whilst not a familiar fairy tale, the story of Sophie and Howl very much feels like one at times with its emphasis on morals and exploration of relationships but, on the other hand, it also feels much more adult, being filled with a lot of humour, brilliantly complex characters, and many secrets to be revealed.

Not technically a book for adults, Howl’s Moving Castle is more of a young adult novel, written long before young adult fiction became so popular. It’s quite an innocent story, with Howl and Sophie’s relationship developing quite quickly but, most of all, the focus of the book is on how Sophie feels about herself, which is an important subject for young girls in any decade.

Sophie thinks she’s doomed to fail because she’s the oldest of three, and feels like she doesn’t compare to her more talented and beautiful sisters; so when the Witch turns her into an old woman, she finds it quite fitting and almost accepts her new appearance straight away. It’s not until the end when Sophie realises that it’s about what she can do that defines her, not the qualities of those around her.

It is quite inspiring, but it’s also quite basic at the same time. Regarding her relationship with Howl, too, there’s not a lot of development or emotional investment, just a sweet happy-ever-after, so older readers may have some issues with it.

That being said, I enjoyed it thoroughly and I can’t wait to read it to my own children. For me, what this book is really about is fantasy and magic, and that’s what I found so enchanting about it. It’s not often you can delve so easily into a fantasy book and feel part of the world that has been created, but that’s definitely what Howl’s Moving Castle does.

If you’ve approached this book like I have, having seen Hayao Miyazaki‘s Japanese animation before reading Jones’ work, you do have to be open-minded in the fact that Miyazaki handles the story quite differently. However, this should mean that the book will also mean so much more to you, knowing the basics of what to expect from it, yet eager to enjoy the imaginative elegance of what Miyazaki left out.

Howl’s Moving Castle was adapted into a film in 2004, which you can read my Book vs. Film Review for here, and watch the trailer for below:

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