Howl’s Moving Castle

Sometimes impulses work in our favor. The day after I, on impulse, grabbed a copy of Howl’s Moving Castle from the library, Kristen at We Be Reading announced her Diana Wynne Jones month. Of course, this meant that I could not let this be one of the books that I returned to the library unread (a fate that awaits at least half of the library books I borrow).

The book begins with Sophie Hatter, the eldest of three sisters, resigning herself to the fact that she’ll never be the prettiest or the smartest, just the oldest, and thus not the most successful. When her father dies, her stepmother arranges for her sisters to go into apprenticeships that will put them on the road to a happy marriage or a great career in magic. But Sophie stays behind to learn the hat trade, so that she can inherit the family business. Soon, however, an unaccountably jealous witch curses Sophie, turning her into an old woman. Horrified at her fate, Sophie goes out into the world and ends up in the castle of the reputably fearsome wizard Howl.

I had seen the Miyazaki film of Howl’s Moving Castle ages ago but remembered little about it, other than that I liked it. (Miyazaki pretty much can’t miss with me.) I’m sure that the film influenced the way I pictured some of the settings, but for the most part, this felt like an entirely new story. (Oddly enough, in looking at images from the film online, none of the characters from the film look the way I imagined as I was reading, except perhaps for Sophie and Howl.)

For me, much of the pleasure of this book lies in the characters, rather than in the plot, which is at times overly convoluted. The castle’s residents—Sophie, Howl, Calcifer, and Michael—form something of an impromptu family, with all the benefits and annoyances that come with family life. One of the things that stood out to me about Fire and Hemlock, the first (and only other) DWJ novel I read, is how well she depicts authentic human emotion. I felt the same way about the interactions within the castle family—the fact that one of the family members is a fire demon scarcely mattered. The characters are frequently exasperated with and disapproving of one another, but over time, it’s clear that some of those frustrated feelings come from a place of caring. (And sometimes they’re just annoyed at annoying behavior.)

As I mentioned above, the plot gets convoluted. I enjoyed that all these details and hints about character identities and motivations weren’t always obvious, but I got overwhelmed by all the revelations and reverses, particularly in the last few chapters. There was just a lot of information, and I read the first half too quickly to take it all in. The somewhat info-dumpy, all-is-revealed ending was too much because I was having to re-assimilate information I missed in the earlier. Not DWJ’s fault at all, but a warning to future readers to pay attention.

The edition that I read included an interview with Diana Wynne Jones in which she said that many of her readers tell her that they want to marry Howl. This made me laugh, because seriously? That Carly Simon song is in fact all about him, no probably about it. DWJ remarked that she’d rather not be with someone who would spend hours in the bathroom and fill the house with green slime when he’s mad. True that.

And that brings us to the romantic angle in the book. (I’m going to get slightly spoilerly in the rest of this paragraph for Howl’s and Fire and Hemlock.) I haven’t quite made up my mind about the romance. On the one hand, I can see how some characters suit each other, even though one of them doesn’t seem like a good match in general. I could buy that here, especially given the family dynamic in the household that was established early on. On the other hand, the romance doesn’t start to perk much until the final few chapters, so it felt thrown in. You could argue that there were little signs of jealousy all along, but it’s all one-sided, if it’s there at all. What’s really bothersome to me is that now in two of the two DWJ books I’ve read, there’s a not entirely convincing romance in the eleventh hour.  Please tell me this is not a pattern with her books because it’s one I don’t much like. Slow burns. That’s what I want in a romance. That or no romance at all.

My issues with the ending won’t put me off reading more Diana Wynne Jones. I’m especially interested in the Chrestomanci books, but I’d happily visit Howl’s world again.

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10 Responses to Howl’s Moving Castle

  1. Kristen M. says:

    It’s true that many of DWJ’s books have an info dump feeling at the end. I’ve just come to expect that feeling of being totally overwhelmed toward the end of her books! Luckily there are many of her books that have no romance at all and others where they are a slow burn. I think you’ll be satisfied sometimes. :) The Chrestomanci books especially have some of everything in them.

    I’m glad that I could be the impetus for you getting through this one instead of just returning it unread to the library. :) Be sure and put your link in my post so that you can be in for the prize!

    • Teresa says:

      I think the info-dumpy feel would have bothered me less if I’d been more attentive along the way because there were some things that should not have come as so much of a surprise, or some questions that should have been nagging at me that I wanted answered.

      I figured that as prolific as she is that she’s bound to handle romance in lots of different ways. It was just startling to read two in a row in which I had the same problem.

  2. Aarti says:

    I think if you read the sequels to Howl’s Moving Castle (I prefer the one that is not based on Arabian Nights), then the romance seems more real. I really just loved Sophie, and so was happy for her that she was happy at the end, but I know what you mean about the romance feeling tacked on. I often feel that way about Guy Gavriel Kay, too.

    I am glad you had an impetus to read this book! So funny, I recently felt an impetus to read Kage Baker, who has been sitting on my shelf for years, and I LOVED the book, so now want to read so much more of her. And have gone into belated mourning for her passing.

    • Teresa says:

      I can see how they’d develop into a great couple, and I was happy that Sophie was happy in the end. I just would have been happier if I’d realized that was what she wanted all along :)

  3. Jenny says:

    I’ve felt the romance was more reasonable, the more times I’ve read this book. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to marry Howl, however! DWJ is perfectly right that being married to him would be a nightmare. Anyway I do love how fond everyone in the house is of each other — that scene where Calcifer speeds up the castle so Sophie won’t be frightened is really, really sweet.

    • Teresa says:

      That is a great scene–and the one where Howl insists that Sophie not go anywhere after she’s been sick. They do feel like such a family, warts and all. And that’s enough to make me OK with the romance, even if I wish it had felt like more of a possibility throughout.

  4. Jenny @ Stone Soup Books says:

    This was the first book by Diana Wynne Jones that I ever read and I have to say that it is still my favorite. I always thought she hit the romance factor on the nose in this one – just enough moments of affection to be sweet, but not overwhelmingly so. I always prefer books where the romance isn’t the main point, but rather something that highlights the evolving relationship between characters.

    I think Diana wrote THE BEST endings. Zany, everything-that-can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong, every-plotline–gets-wrapped-up-like-a-bow, hot mess endings. I adore her endings. They are such a distinctive feature of her writing and so many of her books have endings like that – Charmed Life, Year of the Griffin, Deep Secret (but that whole book was a hot mess, in a good way), Witch Week, ect. ect.

    • Teresa says:

      To be honest, I think the thing that troubled me most about the romance is that this was the second of the two books of hers that I’ve read that added a romantic angle toward the end. I wouldn’t have wanted it to be the main point either, but a little more time spent on its gradual evolution wouldn’t have done it much harm.

      And now having heard from both you and Kristen that her endings tend to be over the top, I’ll be better braced for it next time :)

  5. boardinginmyforties says:

    There are so many bloggers who have raved about this author and this book. I know I need to read it This book sounds like it nothing like what I would usually read and that is what is most appealing about it for me.

  6. nami says:

    Read this fanfic called “A Woman True and Fair”.
    You’ll understand the book better and realize Sophie’s POV was kind of spoiled XD
    She didn’t notice she was in love with Howl ’till the very end. That’s why the hints are so subtle.
    But they’re there.

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