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.