Diana Wynne Jones – Howl’s Moving Castle (1986) Review


Howl’s Moving Castle is a fairy tale novel for younger readers from the 1980s, but most people are more familiar with Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli film, which is of course wonderful. But the book has a lot to offer too and is certainly worth reading.

I explicitly say fairy tale instead of fantasy novel, because the story seems to operate on a fairy tale logic. Things happen in the story in a way because that is how fairy tales work, as if that logic is an invisible hand driving the plot forwards. Sophie, our main character, grows up in a household with two sisters and a stepmother who takes advantage of her, so we immediately find ourselves in a sort of Cinderella situation. She soon escapes that situation, but throughout the rest of the story there are plot developments and references that echo other fairy tales. The invisible hand is Jones wanting to write a story in conversation with known fairy tales.

Sophie Hatter is a really unusual character. We get to know her as a young girl but she is really down on herself and keeps muttering to herself. A mad Hatter. Right in the second chapter, a glamour is put on her that turns her into an old woman, and she sort of casually accepts it because it perfectly fits her character already. Now she’s an old woman muttering to herself. 

Howl is an unusual character as well. He isn’t what you would expect from a wizard: he is a young bachelor, dapper, very fickle and moody. A huge drama queen. An anxious commitment phobe who runs after women and then loses interest when they reciprocate. Spends hours in the bathroom, reminding me of a former roommate. 

In fact, the story itself is rather unusual. For a Cinderella story it is subverted in a way because Sophie is disguised not as a princess but as a nagging old woman who insinuates herself into Howl’s life. He doesn’t know who she is. Much of the story is about keeping disguises. Not only Sophie, but Howl disguises himself differently in every city and for the women he chases after, and he falls for Sophie’s sister, who in fact changed her appearance with another sister. Howl’s apprentice Michael is in love with one of the sisters, but for a while it is unclear with which one and in which disguise. It gets kind of confusing. A leading theme is being afraid to be yourself and afraid for letting your desires be known, and putting up masks instead. 

The best thing about the book for me was the mood between Howl, Sophie, Michael and Calcifer as they lived together as a found family. They start to care for each other and as the reader I started to care for them too. The scenes with them in the castle feel like a precursor to the Cozy Fantasy movement whenever Sophie is cleaning and needling. Having an old woman as main character (even if she’s a bewitched old woman) automatically creates a gentler narrative.

While that is all very enchanting, I didn’t feel great enthusiasm to read chapter after chapter. Sophie, Howl and the rest fill more than 200 pages with little kitchen adventures. Howl is heartbroken, Howl catches a cold, Michael tries a spell and fails, a dog enters the house, a scarecrow chases the castle… each of these events justify another whole chapter and that makes the entire novel slow, sedate and domestic. The plot is really only resolved in the final chapter where it gets a quick resolution. But the story is also like a spell. As Howl explains, each spell has a puzzle inside it, and the narrative indeed has some puzzles that reward rereading. There are hints and cross-connections between events, and a spell or a poem that works like a meta-description of the entire novel. Howl’s Moving Castle is a spell. 

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13 Responses to Diana Wynne Jones – Howl’s Moving Castle (1986) Review

  1. Bookstooge says:

    Glad you enjoyed it but from your last paragraph, I doubt I’d recommend reading any of the tangentially related sequels.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. peatlong says:

    Your reaction sounds very similar to mine. I did really enjoy and admire the spell-like nature of it, but more so once I was done than while reading, and while reading did find it a bit too slow. I did find it intriguing as a mystery though. And yeah, that ending felt very quick.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Friday Five: During the Rain Edition – Peat Long's Blog

  4. bormgans says:

    Didn’t know the movie was based on a book. Maybe someday…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ola G says:

    I really liked the book, I think I gave it a similar rating. It is slow, and somewhat illogical/muddy at the end, but I loved the atmosphere and the subtle humor. I also thought the idea of turning a young girl into an old lady, and the changes in behavior that Sophie feels entitled to because of that change, were actually spot on in terms of social acceptability and expectations. So, in a way, I read it as a critique of paternalistic culture, not only in fantasy but in rl as well 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought Sophie was really entertaining to read about as an old woman. Old ladies make for great characters; look at Granny Weatherwax, perhaps Pratchett’s best character. I find it refreshing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ola G says:

        Yes! Old ladies form the secret society with special ocular powers, one nasty stare and you start wondering what terrible things await you in the future 😁


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