I’ve been flipping through my copy of Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones to find a funny part to share with you all, but I’m going to have to ask you to take my word for it that this is a very funny book. It’s just that the humor is almost based on context or accumulation of effect. Surely you can imagine how hilarious it is to watch a soldier coo over a mama cat and her kitten as his exasperated travel companion is just trying to get stuff done. But before that, there’s a comical bargaining scene in which the novel’s protagonist, Abdullah, tries to pay as little as possible for a threadbare magic carpet. And then there’s Abdullah’s tendency to get his way by offering the most profuse and ridiculous compliments imaginable—“O splendor of lilac vapors” or “O puce pearl of magic.” And we can’t forget his attempts to convince a petulant genie to grant his promised wishes. (Oh, the genie!)
This book tells the story of Abdullah, a carpet seller who lives in Zanzib, daydreaming that he’s really a lost prince destined to marry a beautiful princess. When a magic carpet whisks him away to a lush garden, he meets a lovely and clever princess named Flower-in-the-Night, and it looks like at least one part of his daydream may well come true because Flower-in-the-Night is determined to marry Abdullah, regardless of what her father might think. In fact, when Abdullah notes that her father may look down on his lowly origins, she drums her fingers angrily and says, “You speak as if it is my father who intends to marry you!”
Flower-in-the-Night refuses to put up with any ridiculous rules about who can marry whom, but when a djinn turns up and carries her away, the secret wedding plans must come to an end, as Abdullah figures out how to find and rescue her.
This book is a sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle, but the story stands almost entirely on its own. The principal characters from Howl’s don’t appear until near the end, and although their appearance is entirely delightful—and makes the whole book seem even better in retrospect—you don’t need to have read the earlier novel to enjoy this one. Knowing Howl, Sophie, and Calcifer will enhance your appreciation of the book’s final chapters, though, so I suggest reading Howl’s first if you can. (I want so much to talk about how they’re used in this book, but I don’t want to say too much here. If you’ve read it, let’s chat in the comments about that!)
The plot of Castle in the Air is full of twists and turns and unexpected surprises, which is typical of Jones’s books—at least the few that I’ve read. But this may be the first of her books in which I didn’t feel rather lost at the conclusion, so that’s a plus! I didn’t find as much depth in the relationships among the characters as in Howl’s or Fire and Hemlock, but that’s mostly due to the nature of the story. These people are mostly new to each other and don’t spend years building their connections. But they are great fun to watch.
In truth, the main thing I have to say about this book is that it is solidly fun. I had a great time with these people, and although I wasn’t convinced by the ending of Howl’s, I found that I was thrilled to see Howl and Sophie together again. This book just made me happy.
I read this for the DWJMarch hosted by Kristen at We Be Reading. I chose it because it’s the book I had on hand, but it fits in rather well with the month’s theme of Ladies and Lasses of DWJ because of the way she has plays around with our usual notions of what fictional princesses are like. In the world of this novel, princesses are the most treasured of brides, treated as property to be married to the most advantageous suitor or whisked away by the most resourceful djinn. Some of the best scenes in the novel involve a castle full of princesses:
The new arrivals were all female, and they all looked extremely displeased; but when you had said that, you seemed to have said the only two things they had in common. They stood in a row, thirty or so of them, glaring accusingly at the two djinns, and they were tall, short, stout, skinny, young and old, and of every color the human race produces. Abdullah’s eyes scudded along the row in amazement. … They ranged from a tiny, frail, yellow princess nearest to him, to an elderly, bent princess in the mid-distance. And they were wearing every possible kind of clothing, from a ball dress to tweeds.
These princesses are wonderful, each bringing her own gifts to helping them get free. These women and girls are far from property. They have their own minds, and they will stand by them. A few stand out more than others, but—as a group—they provide a wonderful model of how women of all shapes, sizes, ages, races, and temperaments are valuable for themselves, not for some arbitrary status given to them. It’s their personalities that makes these princesses into real treasures.