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REVIEW: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Dear Readers,

Since beloved children’s book author Diana Wynne Jones passed away a few years ago, this review is addressed to you.

Howls-Moving-CastleMy husband and I read the classic YA novel Howl’s Moving Castle recently. It was a fun and funny novel and I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it as much as my husband did.

The protagonist of Howl’s Moving Castle is seventeen year old Sophie Hatter, the oldest of three girls raised by a couple who owns a hat shop in the town of Market Chipping, Ingrary. For Sophie, being born oldest of three is the beginning of her troubles.

You see, as everyone in the land of Ingary knows, the role of successful fortune-seeker is reserved for youngest children. Oldests are merely the ones who fail first. And Sophie, as the narrator tells us, isn’t even the child of a poor woodcutter, so she feels she has no chance of success at all.

Mr. Hatter, Sophie’s father, dies early in the novel, leaving behind considerable debts. Fanny, Sophie’s stepmother, decides to place her beautiful middle daughter Lettie as an apprentice in a bake shop, and her youngest, Martha—the one most likely to find her fortune should she seek it—with a friend who happens to be a witch, so that Martha can learn some magic. Sophie will remain in the hat shop, since she is skilled at sewing.

Hat-making bores Sophie, but she is good at it. The longer she stays at the shop and house, the harder it becomes for her to leave. One day she forces herself to do so and goes to visit Lettie at the bakery. Only Lettie turns out to be Martha. Martha and Lettie, it seems, switched places in order to do the things they are most interested in doing.

Martha warns Sophie that Fanny is working her to the bone and tells Sophie she deserves a wage. But Sophie isn’t very assertive, and when she returns home she doesn’t pursue this strongly enough. Sophie worries that she’ll be stuck in the hat shop for the rest of her life, but fate has something different in store for her.

One day, the Witch of the Waste stops at the hat shop in order to sneer at the hats on display. Even the ones Sophie suggests she try on meet with contempt. When Sophie stands up to the witch, the witch casts a spell on Sophie which turns her into an elderly woman.

Fearful that no one, not even her loved ones, will recognize her, Sophie leaves home at last, intending to find a way to undo the spell. As she wanders on a hillside, Sophie acquires a walking stick and performs a kind deed for a scarecrow.

Sophie doesn’t even realize that she has somehow talked her stick into magical wand-like properties, but when she stumbles across Wizard Howl’s moving castle while in need of shelter from the cold night, she and her stick manage to briefly bring the castle to a halt.

Wizard Howl, an enemy of the Witch of the Waste reputed to suck out young girl’s souls or eat their hearts, lives in the moving castle, but he isn’t present when Sophie arrives. Instead, Sophie meets Michael, his young apprentice, and Calcifer, a fire demon who resides in the castle hearth and operates the castle’s movements.

That night, while everyone else is sleeping, Calcifer and Sophie make a pact. If Sophie will find a way to break the contract that ties Calcifer to Wizard Howl, Calcifer will find a way to undo the witch’s spell and restore Sophie to her actual age.

Michael and Calcifer allow Sophie to stay put, and when Howl finally arrives, he does too. Sophie makes herself useful by cleaning the castle and putting it in order—much to the chagrin of the castle’s other residents.

Howl, Sophie discovers, is younger and more charming than she expected, and not the menace she supposed him to be. He doesn’t suck out young girl’s souls or eat their hearts—but he does break their hearts much too frequently and too easily for Sophie’s liking.

Will Howl break Sophie’s heart too? Will Sophie break the contract between Howl and Calcifer? Will Sophie destroy Howl by sweeping away the spiders that occupy his bedroom? Or will the Witch of the Waste get to Howl first? And where do Sophie’s sisters and stepmom fit in?

Howl’s Moving Castle is a difficult book to classify. Clearly it is not written for adults, and its content is relatively innocent and to my mind suitable for tweens. Sophie may be seventeen years old, but this doesn’t read like a book for kids in that age group.

Moreover, while I typically think of YA novels as having a young protagonist whose viewpoint is integral to the novel, I didn’t feel I got this here. Sophie was only technically seventeen. It wasn’t just her appearance but also her personality which was altered when the Witch of the Waste turned her into a woman in her seventies, so what we actually have here is a kids’ books written in omniscient voice which is infused with a senior citizen’s POV.

Nor is there a coming of age element in the story for Sophie or for any other character. That doesn’t make it a bad book by any stretch, but it does make it something different than what I expected.

There’s a lot of humor and cleverness to Howl’s Moving Castle, as my plot summary hopefully illustrates. I enjoyed the fairy tale elements which were given nifty little twists here. I liked that Sophie had her own magical power and that she eventually learned how to use it.

The worldbuilding feels simple and almost basic; the world mostly takes its inspiration from England, but it is entirely consistent and magic doesn’t come to the rescue for the characters—they have to figure out how to make it work for them, something I appreciated.

There is also a great deal of charm to the narration. For example:

Percival meekly did as she said. He was no fun at all to bully. Sophie suspected that was why Howl had sent him with her. She snorted, and took her anger out on the weeds. Whatever the stuff was that had killed the daffodils, it was strong. The weeds in the drive died as soon as it touched them. So did the grass at the sides of the drive, until Sophie calmed down a little. The evening calmed her. The fresh air was blowing off the distant hills, and clumps of trees planted at the sides of the drive rustled majestically in it.

Sophie weed-killed her way down a quarter of the drive.

Still, I didn’t feel as much emotional investment in the narrative as I wanted to feel. Perhaps it was that I was never convinced the Witch of the Waste was a true danger to Howl or Sophie. Perhaps it was that Howl was so collected most of the time (even his tantrums seemed partly deliberate, a show for others) that his cucumber-coolness failed to persuade me that he was actually afraid.

Or maybe it was that the romantic elements were so muted for most of the book. With Sophie in her seventies and Howl pursuing young women left and right, I didn’t feel that there was that kind of spark between them until pretty late in the story. A romantic angle can really help to engage me but here it was only partially successful in doing so.

I also tend to prefer YA novels aimed at an older audience than this one was. I know this is a much loved and highly regarded book, but for me, Howl’s Moving Castle rates a B-.

Sincerely,

Janine

 

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Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

33 Comments

  1. Janhavi
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 12:40:52

    I adore this book! I see this more as a children’s fantasy book- maybe for kids age 8 or so, and it has to be seen through that lens.

    (Mind you, I read it for the first time when I was 24, not exactly a child.)

  2. Patricia Eimer
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 12:41:06

    I read this when I was younger and liked it but I have to admit– the movie is better.

  3. Jane Lovering
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 13:12:07

    Hate to admit it, but I haven’t read this one – although DWJ’s ‘Fire and Hemlock’ is one of my all time favourite books, and I also love her ‘Hexwood’.

  4. cleo
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 14:41:55

    I read this for the first time this summer, and I had a similar kind of meh reaction – I wanted to like it more than I did, although I thought it was clever and fun. I feel like I was too old to read it for the first time – there are some books where I feel like it helps to discover them relatively young to properly bond with them – somehow being in my 40s didn’t work for this one. Part of it was the pacing – I was a more patient reader in my youth – but holy cow did this drag for me.

    I read and loved other DWJs in my 20s, including the completely crazy-sauce A Sudden Wild Magic. I haven’t re-read any of them recently, so I don’t know what I’d think of her pacing in those now. I’m kind of afraid to re-read ASWM – I have such happy memories of being completely captivated by it and I’m not sure it will hold up.

  5. Q
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 14:53:02

    Oh I love love love this book (and pretty much everything written by DWJ)!. I love this book so much that I’m actually a bit sad that you didn’t love it as much as I do :-)

    I wonder if you were trying to hard to classify it? I don’t think when DWJ wrote it she thought of it as a YA or romance or any category, it was just a story that she wanted to tell. I read it when I was very young but even re-reading it now, I would be surprised that you thought of it as a YA novel – Fire and Hemlock would be more for the YA age range.

    I did find it emotionally involving as I think there is quite a strong theme of loneliness and the outsider running through the book, especially the section where Howl went back to Wales and you can see how he doesn’t fit in there but really loved and missed his family. He can never go home. This reminds me of DWJ’s Homeward Bounders which has one of the saddest endings I’ve ever read.

    And I have to say, I did have some tears when Sophy and Howl got together.

    I’m afraid I have to disagree with regards to the film, I thought it was terrible! It wasn’t true to the book at all and lost all the gentle sarcastic humour, Sophy was pretty snarky in the book and I just found her wet in the film.

  6. hapax
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 15:03:30

    I have to agree that this book is pretty much sui generis — neither romance nor fantasy nor YA nor children’s nor adult — even the sequels (sortof), charming as they are, just aren’t the same sort of thing.

    I have a tough time imagining anyone *hating* this book, but it truly is a book that people either say “Huh, cute” or “OMG I LOVE YOU BOOK WE ARE SOULMATES LET ME HAVE YOUR BOOKBABIES”; as you may be able to guess, I’m one of the latter.

    (Actually, I *have* tried to have bookbabies with HOWL — the resulting stories just never mentioned up to the charm, the warmth, and [as Q perceptively notes] the sadness and loneliness and not-fitting-in-ness at the heart of the story)

  7. Laine
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 16:07:34

    @Q:

    Oh God, The Homeward Bounders. Just thinking about it makes me want to cry. It’s in the running of being my favourite DWJ book, along with Fire And Hemlock and Hexwood.

    I haven’t read all of DWJ books but I have read a fair bit, most of them as an older teen or adult. There really is a huge variety in the ages the books seem to be written for, some are obviously more for younger children, even though she never did safe and cosy. Som would get classified as YA these days, Fire and Hemlock being the obvious example. A few of her books were marketed for adults but none of those were ever as good as her childrens lit, IMO. She’s one of the cleverest writers I can think of, managing to fool (in a good way) her readers time and time again in the space of a short novel. And I never did quite understand what happened in the end of Fire and Hemlock, loved it more with each reread, but that ending is way too smart for me.

    I read Howl’s Moving Castle in my early teens and I liked it a lot. Hated the movie, though I suppose that might be because I expected it to be a faithful retelling. The sequels were okay as far as I’m concerned but they didn’t quite match with the original.

  8. Andrea K
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 16:20:22

    I don’t think Sophie’s personality changes with the spell. I think Sophie feels free to behave in a different way because she appears to be an old woman and she is freed from the expectations and strictures that apply to younger women.

  9. Michelle
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 16:44:29

    I love both the book and the movie. The audioversionis also good. This is an A read for me.

  10. Olivia Waite (@O_Waite)
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 17:25:41

    I didn’t love HMC the first time I read it either. I was about twelve or thirteen, and I’d read the sequel first (don’t even bother — it’s embarrassingly dated and more than a little racist) so I came in with some weird expectations about the setting. But something about Sophie got under my skin — not to mention the weirdness of encountering that Donne poem for the first time — and I started rereading it every year. For a kid who liked weird things/grownup things/ancient things and hated having to play nice all the time, Sophie was tailor-made for my affections.

    At this point, it’s one of those books you’ll have to pry from my cold, clutching fingers when the darkness finally comes down over my eyes. The movie is … okay, but not the same kind of story.

  11. Olivia Waite (@O_Waite)
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 17:26:44

    (Is now embarrassed because leaving an em tag open is like the internet version of when your slip is showing.)

  12. Sunita
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 18:13:07

    Oh, I love this book. I’m sorry it didn’t work as well for you, Janine. I didn’t read it until after I had seen the movie, which blew me away. The book was different but equally good. I can see how reading the book first can make the movie less appealing, but I just feel fortunate that I have two great ways to experience the story.

    Perhaps because I found the Witch of the Waste quite impressive in the film, I didn’t find her less intimidating in the book. And I agree with Andrea K that Sophie doesn’t change as a person. That for me was one of the important aspects.

  13. Liz Mc2
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 18:22:04

    I discovered this book as an adult (after I started teaching children’s lit, I think, but I’m not sure; I think I found it on an “If You Like Harry Potter” list at the library). It would be in the running for the 5 books I would take to a desert island. But I guess we can still be friends. ;)

    It’s interesting that you don’t see coming-of-age arcs for the characters, because for me this book is very much about both Sophie and Howl learning to be grown-ups: Sophie discovers her powers (of many kinds); Howl has to stop being a slitherer-outer. Most of DWJ’s books that I’ve read feature neglectful and self-interested parents, like Fanny in this book (though she’s treated fairly sympathetically). Her child characters have to scramble themselves into adulthood without much help; many of them live in/create their own worlds, at least to some extent, and this is how I see Howl’s castle. For me her exploration of their loneliness, bewilderment, and gradual maturing and empowerment is both moving and intellectually interesting. (And if you read the autobiographical essay on her website, you’ll get a sense of part of where these thematic preoccupations come from).

  14. Mary
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 18:28:33

    There’s a posthumous book of DWJ’s essays that was published, and the introduction is written by Neil Gaiman. One of the things he says is that DWJ was never as popular as she should have been because she totally ignored literary trends. I would definitely include categorization like YA/children’s lit in with that. She’s one of my favorite authors, I’ve looked for her book in many a library, and they can be found anywhere from picture books to adult fiction!
    I love all of DWJ’s books (as you might have gathered . . . ) but I can definitely understand coming to them too late or at the wrong phase of your life. Not DWJ, but I didn’t read Ender’s Game until I was 21, and I sorely wish I’d read it sooner. Still, some of her books have so much depth and nuance (Homeward Bounders, Hexwood argh argh argh, that book still makes me cry!). They’re worth reading at any age, really. It’s interesting–she was taught at university by both CS Lewis and Tolkien, and you can see some parallels in the intellectual intricacies of her plot lines.

  15. Tasha
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 18:45:30

    Ah! Howl’s Moving Castle is still one of my favorite books, even twenty-five years after first picking it up! Still, I love Homeward Bounders best and even have a library copy I paid way too much for at a book sale a few years ago.

    I love Sophie’s character because she takes her outward appearance as license to behave as she wants. She no longer worries that she’ll be socially unacceptable because in her mind old ladies can do and say what they want without fear of reprisal. The true thread that runs through the book will be ‘to your own self stay true.’ This is the defining mantra and if you think about it, a lot of the misadventures that the characters go through is because they’re not being true to themselves.

    Sophie’s the exception. The really wonderful exception, but even she has to accept herself in order to find her own HEA. It’s going on that journey with her that gives the book such depths. (you should also try Archer’s Goon which always blows my mind now that I’m older and can catch a lot more of the nuances!)

  16. Janine
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 20:03:58

    There are so many comments to reply to today that I’m going to try something a little different today. First, Q, I am sorry I saddened you. I knew as I was writing the review that it would let some readers down and I felt bad about that, but I can only write reviews from my personal reactions. I wonder if cleo is right that I haven’t done myself a favor by waiting until my forties to pick up this book (my first DWJ, too) for the first time.

    I also think that the fact that one of my favorite YA authors, Megan Whalen Turner, is a DWJ fan and was influenced by DWJ, may have led me to expect more than I should have. Oh well.

    And yeah, hapax, I am one of those “eh, cute” people. I sort of picked up on the sadness that you and Q mention, but I felt that Howl had rejected his family as much as they rejected him, by spending so much time in Ingrary rather than Wales. Megan was a horrible harpy, it was true, but the children, being children, were a different story in my eyes.

    I also wasn’t sure if the youngest child in Wales (named Mari, I believe) was How’s niece or his daughter. Something about the way Megan spoke to him about Mari made me wonder if he was Mari’s dad.

    And while I know Howl watched over the kids from his bedroom window in the castle, he spent most of his waking hours in Ingrary, so I saw him in the light of an absentee father figure to those children. And so I felt he was guilty of abandoning at least as much as he had been cast out.

    Sophie’s repeated comments about his slithering out, amusing as they were, didn’t help with that.

    I had more sympathy for Sophie, but she was so critical and judgmental of Howl for much of the book that I didn’t connect with her much either. I connected with the secondary characters like Martha and Michael more than with the primary ones.

    As for Sophie’s personality, Andrea K and Sunita, perhaps it isn’t accurate to say that Sophie’s personality changed but what I meant is that the transformation changed not just Sophie’s physical body but also her POV.

    Andrea, you say that Sophie felt liberated from the strictures placed on young women after her body changed, but I feel that most elderly people speak their minds much more bluntly than young people, and I’m pretty sure this isn’t only because they don’t face the same strictures, or even only because they have less time left in which to express themselves. Since this type of thing is a common characteristic of aging, I think it also has to do with some of the biological effects of aging on the brain.

    So what I meant when I said that Sophie’s POV changed was that her mind seemed to have aged and not just her body, and ergo, there isn’t really a young person’s internal POV in the book except in the very beginning. And I really do expect a young person’s POV from a YA or children’s novel.

    (I found Mary‘s comment on DWJ’s lack of interest in positioning herself within the market interesting and enlightening with regard to that).

    Tasha, it is also interesting to me that you say about Sophie that “She no longer worries that she’ll be socially unacceptable because in her mind old ladies can do and say what they want without fear of reprisal.”

    Where you saw it as Sophie deciding how to behave based on her idea of an elderly woman, I saw DWJ writing Sophie as an elderly woman, for the most part. I didn’t think Sophie was acting based on an idea of what elderly people were like, but rather that the witch’s curse had changed Sophie’s behavior not so much by choice, by turning not only her body but also her mind into that of an older person.

    Re. seeing the movie first, Sunita, I know what you mean, because I saw the movie of a Merchant Ivory film of A Room with a View before I read the book and I will forever picture the characters from E.M. Forster’s novel much like the actors from the movie because of it.

    But the Witch of the Waste really didn’t scare me much in the book, and Howl seemed more afraid of growing up than of fighting with her.

    Which brings me to Liz Mc2‘s point that there was a coming of age element.

    Yes, put that way I see it is there but when I think of coming of age I don’t think of simply taking responsibility that you have long avoided but also of crossing the threshold from childhood to adulthood via a process of disillusionment / loss of innocence. And that is what was missing for me here.

    That said, I did appreciate Sophie’s discovery of her powers. Howl’s storyline of stopping the slithering out was cute but less meaningful to me because wasn’t he described as being in his twenties? And I wondered for part of the story if he was Mari’s deadbeat dad, so I didn’t have that much patience with his overgrown and occasionally tantrum-throwing child behavior when he was really a powerful adult. Esp. as from Sophie’s POV he was also pursuing one of her sisters for the conquest and little more.

    Mary, I find your comment re. CS Lewis and Tolkien fascinating not just in regard to the world-building but also in light of Olivia Waite (@O_Waite)‘s comment that the sequel to HMC is “embarrassingly dated and more than a little racist.”

    I don’t know why it is that I can read and enjoy a lot of European historical romances with nary a person of color in them, problematic as they are, but when I encounter a fantasy genre novel in which the world seems clearly based on England and all the characters are white, as is the case with this book, it bothers me more. There’s surely a double standard there.

    But for whatever reason — maybe because in today’s YA novels, there are usually at least some secondary POC characters– I did ask myself as I was writing the review of Howl’s Moving Castle whether there was something slightly racist about the book beyond the above. In the end though, I couldn’t put my finger on anything more.

    I’m more conscious of sexism and racism when reading Tolkien and CS Lewis though, which is why I find the comment about DWJ studying with them interesting.

    Tasha, “to thine own self be true” is one of my most favorite themes in literature so I really don’t know why it didn’t resonate with me more here.

    I probably sound harsher on the book than I really am. It had its share of charm and I enjoyed it even without loving it.

  17. Tabs
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 20:13:40

    I am one of those readers who just can’t be objective about Howl’s Moving Castle. For me, it’s an A+ and often my favorite book just ever. I first read it when I was 13 years old and at this point I basically can’t read it anymore because it’s burned in my brain.

    I always saw it as more of a coming-into-confidence than a coming-to-age story. Sophie starts out as a young girl who is stuck in a rut. She’s bland, meek old Sophie, stuck in the hatter’s shop and destined to lead a boring dreary life. Until she gets turned into an old woman. Then she suddenly has the freedom to kick animated scarecrows, tussle with fire demons, scold wizards for throwing temper tantrums, and express her feelings with weedkiller and damn the consequences because it’s not like she has anyone to answer to any more. Society doesn’t care what a cranky old lady gets up to. She can be bossy and fussy and damn anyone who doesn’t like it.

    I will always love Howl’s Moving Castle. And man oh man did I hate that movie. I love Miyazaki but he made a movie that was only loosely based on the source material.

  18. hapax
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 20:32:26

    It never ever occurred to me that Howl was any of the children’s father. I certainly won’t tell somebody else that they read a book “wrong”, but I honestly can’t see where that comes from — especially considering that he is only in his mid-twenties or so. Besides, I’m pretty sure that he *couldn’t* commit to a relationship even so far as fathering a child; his “curse” wouldn’t allow him to be interested in a woman who was interested in him — or at least that’s how I always read it (not that DWJ ever went into biological details)

    And it isn’t just Howl who is sad and lonely, and feels like he doesn’t fit in — that’s pretty much a consistent trait of all the characters, even the most minor ones, even the “villains” (who weren’t even all that villainous; the Witch wasn’t supposed to be “scary”, just selfish and spiteful and ultimately pathetic). Which is what I loved about the ending; it wasn’t about Sophie and Howl’s romance, but about all the denizens of the castle, and their family and friends, forming a “found family”. (Acck! Two many “ffff”‘s!)

    But it’s a fool’s errand to try to talk someone INTO love, even worse than trying to talk them out of it. :-)

    I did love the movie, BTW. I just think of it as a beautiful Ghibli film that — by wild coincidence — shares the title and character names with one of my favorite books.

  19. hestia
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 21:44:58

    I loved Howl’s Moving Castle — which I just read for the first time last year — but Diana Wynne Jones’s books are really hit or miss for me. Some I love, some just strike me as too clever for their own good. She writes children’s books the way many beloved British authors do, without writing down or giving up an inch of complexity. Susan Cooper and Alan Garner also ride that line with me: they veer between brilliant and opaque.

    I love the twist that Sophie becomes a young old woman — I can’t remember another book that uses that plot. A body-switching book, maybe? As someone who has had conversations with teens about the elderly, I love to see that sort of empathy in a book. But I also just love the whole magical story, complicated and messy though it is. So much fun.

    I did think Howl was a bratty, bratty, brat until very late in the book. An artifact of reading it in my forties, I guess.

    And I didn’t care for the movie, though I was really excited to watch it and couldn’t tell you what it was I didn’t like about it.

  20. Janine
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 21:59:40

    @hapax:

    It never ever occurred to me that Howl was any of the children’s father. I certainly won’t tell somebody else that they read a book “wrong”, but I honestly can’t see where that comes from — especially considering that he is only in his mid-twenties or so. Besides, I’m pretty sure that he *couldn’t* commit to a relationship even so far as fathering a child; his “curse” wouldn’t allow him to be interested in a woman who was interested in him — or at least that’s how I always read it (not that DWJ ever went into biological details)

    Well, I didn’t say that I believed this for the entire length of the book but I did speculate about it quite seriously for some time. Surely I’m not the only one who comes up with theories about what the surprises down the road may be when I read?

    I frequently speculate when reading books, about what will be revealed later on, and I thought this was a possibility because Mari was described as “a small girl” (so I thought maybe three years old or so, which was certainly young enough that she could have been his), and recall, at this point in the story he was portrayed as a flirt/womanizing type and we hadn’t yet heard the details of the curse.

    Also, even after it was revealed, it wasn’t clear how to me exactly how long the curse had been in effect, and Mari seemed closer to Howl than the other kids, and she also later proved to be the child the witch chose to threaten when she wanted to get at Howl. Plus it would have fit with Megan’s dissatisfaction with Howl vis-a-vis the kids –I can’t recall if Megan said that Howl was a bad example to the children or that he neglected them but something of that nature was said by Megan, and it fueled my speculations.

  21. FD
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 22:15:59

    Reading this review reminds me of how I felt while reading The Secret Country by Pamela Dean. It’s another book with legions of loving adult fans and I had an odd, sort of out of body experience while reading it, in that I could see exactly how myself at 8 or 12 or 16 or even 20 would have been entranced, and yet at thirtysomething, I just wasn’t. Even though, technically, still a good book. I know I won’t want to reread it but I still put it aside for small relatives. In contrast, they will not be getting my DWJ’s – I’ll buy them copies of their own.
    I do think there is something to the idea that there is a window of time for these quasi-timeless books – they need to wind themselves into the limnal spaces of the mind while the reader is still receptive, and then, ever after they echo in the back brain and resonate for the returning reader, in a manner that gives them more meaning than the plain words on the page.

  22. Persnickety
    Jan 16, 2014 @ 03:28:29

    I loved this book when I read it about 14 or so, and tried desperately to find others- all I found initially were a tale of time city and fire and hemlock. I still regularly reread fire and hemlock and hex wood ( which was published later) but I haven’t reread howls in years. The movie made me sad, it’s a good movie but it pushes the theme of growing into yourself and taking responsibility aside for a more anti war message.
    I do love “deep secret” her other book ( a sudden wild magic is the first) aimed at the adult market.
    When I read both a house of many ways and Enchanted glass( her last two, or at least later works) at how much detail didnt seem to be there, or maybe I put so much of myself when I read the books when I was younger that I can’t do now. Which may be why her books work better if read younger?

  23. Q
    Jan 16, 2014 @ 04:42:22

    Janine – no worries, we can’t all like the same things. I hated the animated film “The Illusionist” for example, everyone else seemed to find it charming whereas I found it incredibly sexist.

    There are several points in the comments that I would like to respond/add to:

    Racism – I don’t think the book is racist at all. Howl is set in the type of England in the same way that all old fashioned fairy tales are, it’s not meant to be today’s England. I am surprised that people would expect to see different ethnicities in it. In addition, even in today’s England, outside of the big cities, there are very few people who are not white (certainly in comparison to America). I worked in York for a year and didn’t see a single black person, and the only people of other ethinicities were tourists. I always felt that Ingary was based on the Cotswolds or Oxfordshire which are very white. I don’t think non-white characters should just be shoehorned into a story and I identified perfectly well with with Sophie even though I’m not white. There are commonalities to all of us that transcend on colour and to be focusing on whether there are non-white characters in a book I find a bit demeaning.

    The sequel (Castle in the Air) plays with 1001 Arabian nights tropes e.g. Djinns, flying carpets etc. Again I didn’t find the book racist, at least not anymore racist than any Disney film not set in the Anglo Saxon world.

    World building – DWJ didn’t write epic fantasy, her worlds are basically our world but subverted or riffed upon. She does it in such a clever and elegant way that I’m often in awe e.g. in another favourite of mine The Power of Three

    Growing into yourself/confidence – yes a lot of her books are on this theme. Surely this is as much a part of growing up as becoming disillusioned. I would argue it’s a more important part of growing up and a message that children need. Disillusionment will come without you trying because the world is like that, we need someone to show us hope and that it’s alright to be ourselves, to be confident and that we are loved. In both Howl and the Power of Three, some of the most moving parts for me were the realisation by the main protagonists that although they felt lonely, out of place and not good enough, this wasn’t the reality, that the people around them loved and appreciated them. I cried in Howl when Sophie realised that Fanny did love and worry about her. I found the bit where her family gathered around to be incredibly moving.

    The curse changed Sophie’s behaviour initially but as time went on, she discovered that this was actually part of her personality, and she grew into it and became comfortable with it. Does it matter whether it was a curse (this is a fantasy after all) or something else that was the catalyst? The point is she grew and accepted her strength and outspokeness and stopped being a self-pitying martyr which she was at the beginning of the book.

    I haven’t read any YA of the current wave so I’m making a huge assumption that a lot of the “growth” in these books are around the characters realising that they are not centres of the universe and need to start thinking of other people and the world around them? DWJ tends to do the opposite, her characters are often sidelined at the beginning but grow and learn that there is a place for them in the world.

    Howl – like others I’m surprised Janine thought he might have been the father of Mari, I didn’t get that at all from the book. I thought the Witch of the West took Mari because she was the youngest and therefore the most vulnerable. Also she seemed closer to him because I assumed that the nephew was going through the awkward teenager phase and so wasn’t going to act particularly close to anyone. I also assumed that Megan’s anger was at her perception of Howl’s neglect of them as a whole family. Maybe because I’m from an Asian background, I never think of the family as just parents and children but the whole extended family as well so this made sense to me.

    Howl was meant to be bratty and I’m surprised at how lovable I found such a flawed person nevertheless.

    DWJ did a lot of that kind of slight of hand writing in her books with both characters and plots, setting you up with one expectation and then completely subverting it. Sometimes, I come to the end of one of her books and just think ‘how did she do that? Pull so many strands that are so disparate, seems to be going no where, should even be in the same book together in to one whole, logical, satisfying conclusion?

    The Witch – as others have commented, she wasn’t meant to be the big evil in this book. She was quite a pathetic character. For me the main tension and scariness in the book came from Howl’s danger of losing his and Calcifer’s soul.

    General – I love that DWJ never wrote down to children whether on an emotional or intellectual level, she always assumed in her books that you were clever enough to figure it out. She wrote children incredibly well and realistically, she understood that children can be just as flawed and nasty. Witch Week is a fantastic book and incredibly funny but also slightly traumatic for me when I first read it as the bullying in there was so realistic. The whole atmosphere and whole children spoke to each other was just like my old school.

  24. Janine
    Jan 16, 2014 @ 13:46:53

    @FD:

    Thank you for your comment. I think you make a great point with what you say below:

    I do think there is something to the idea that there is a window of time for these quasi-timeless books – they need to wind themselves into the limnal spaces of the mind while the reader is still receptive, and then, ever after they echo in the back brain and resonate for the returning reader, in a manner that gives them more meaning than the plain words on the page.

    @Q:

    In addition, even in today’s England, outside of the big cities, there are very few people who are not white (certainly in comparison to America). I worked in York for a year and didn’t see a single black person, and the only people of other ethinicities were tourists. I always felt that Ingary was based on the Cotswolds or Oxfordshire which are very white. I don’t think non-white characters should just be shoehorned into a story and I identified perfectly well with with Sophie even though I’m not white. There are commonalities to all of us that transcend on colour and to be focusing on whether there are non-white characters in a book I find a bit demeaning.

    Well, there has been quite a bit of focus on that same issue of all-white characters within the romance blogosphere, in the context of reading romances (including many set in early 19th century England), and I don’t think any romance fan wants to demean the genre, so I really can’t see how bringing up the issue is demeaning.

    Since an all white cast is not something I point out habitually in book reviews, I probably would not have brought it up with regard to this book had
    Olivia Waite (@O_Waite) not mentioned racism in the sequel in her own comment (having not read the sequel I really can’t say what the stereotypes there are in the sequel; maybe Olivia will weigh in), but it was still on my mind while reading.

    Your point about how white parts of England are is heard, but I still feel there is an issue here because a choice to set a novel in a place based on an all-white locale, and people it with all white characters, is still a choice, and it is one that creates an experience for young non-white readers in which they can’t find anyone of their ethnicity reflected at them in the pages of the book. And that’s an industry-wide problem that frustrates many.

    The sequel (Castle in the Air) plays with 1001 Arabian nights tropes e.g. Djinns, flying carpets etc. Again I didn’t find the book racist, at least not anymore racist than any Disney film not set in the Anglo Saxon world.

    But Disney animated films, including Aladdin, are regularly called out for their racism. Take a look at this post on Cracked or use a search engine to find more examples.

    I haven’t read any YA of the current wave so I’m making a huge assumption that a lot of the “growth” in these books are around the characters realising that they are not centres of the universe and need to start thinking of other people and the world around them?

    That is a false assumption. Today’s YA fantasy novels (the ones I’ve read, anyway) are also about coming into your power, or finding that you have a place in the world or a role to play. If you would like to read some excellent YA fantasy to see what I mean, I recommend Kristin Cashore’s series beginning with Graceling (my favorite of the series is Bitterblue, the third book) Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Days of Blood and Starlight (in that order) by Laini Taylor and Megan Whalen Turner’s series beginning with The Thief (skip ahead to The Queen of Attolia, where the coming of age element comes in, if you can’t get into the first book like some of my friends). All these are brilliant IMO.

  25. MaryK
    Jan 16, 2014 @ 15:02:11

    I first read this book in my 30s and it’s now one of my favorite books. I love fairytale retellings, and this book reads to me like kind of a meta fairytale. I thought the curse turned Sophie into a reflection of her inner self, old and hide bound. She was scared of change and felt constrained to continue in her rut. The curse made her fear and her rut irrelevant. She left because she didn’t want anyone to know her as old Sophie and once no one knew who she was she started acting however she liked. She’d always had a suppressed rebelliousness, the things she said to the hats and the way she told off the witch.

    I hated the movie as soon as it spoiled the fact that the young man in town was Howl. The movie is gorgeous but it’s not the book, and I resent it for that! I did really like the audio version of the book though.

  26. Q
    Jan 16, 2014 @ 15:19:24

    Janine – I didn’t explain myself well. I object to shoehorning a non-white character into a story for PC purposes, and as a young non-white reader (and now older reader) I found/find that demeaning and it’s tokenism. DWJ didn’t feel that this story and this setting needed non-white characters and that’s fine with me. DWJ did actually write non-white characters in her other books, and they play big parts in the books in a very natural way. They were shown in a very as normal children, their ethnicity wasn’t made a big deal of and they played big parts in the story which I really appreciated. If you are interested the books are Homeward Bounders (South Asian characters – or their equivalent as they are from a different world) Tale of Time City (Chinese) and Witch Week (Indian).

    Yes, I knew I was making a big assumption regarding current YA books. The reason why I wrote it was your comment about disillusionment which made me think that they were disappointed with the world which isn’t as accommodating to them as they thought. DWJ’s characters tend to start off being disillusioned and disappointed and then discover that the world is a lot more manageable and warmer than they thought. As someone who can make herself throughly depressed without any help from others, I find this journey very uplifting.

    I know Disney films have been called out for their stereotyping but my point was that if I get upset every time my race is stereotyped in popular culture I wouldn’t leave the house. I don’t think a writer can avoid stereotypes when they are writing about a culture not their own for an audience which isn’t of that other culture. You have to use certain tropes and stereotypes so that your audience can recognise what you are writing.

    I’m careful to use “stereotype” here rather than racism which I see as strongly negative stereotypes. On the whole Disney and certainly DWJ did not use negative stereotypes. The musical Thoroughly Modern Millie is horrifically racist which shocked and traumatised me when I accidentally caught it on TV as child. I was hopping mad that it was revived recently in this supposedly enlightened age. Even more shockingly, non of the mainstream media here in the UK seemed to comment on it.

    Thank you for the recommendations!

  27. Janine
    Jan 16, 2014 @ 15:56:37

    @Q: I see what you meant now but I never meant to suggest “shoehorning” a character as a solution, though I do appreciate it when books (esp. those aimed at kids) are inclusive. It is true that all books are problematic (because all writers are flawed), though some are more so than others. I’ve certainly seen and read far worse than this book.

    Yes, I knew I was making a big assumption regarding current YA books. The reason why I wrote it was your comment about disillusionment which made me think that they were disappointed with the world which isn’t as accommodating to them as they thought.

    No, it’s usually more about someone they loved, trusted or looked up to has failed them or let them down.

    For example in Cashore’s books the heroine can be the child of a tyrant who tormented others she cares about, but she is too sheltered to realize it (or realize the extent of it) at first. Or a parental figure can be using her to hurt innocent people, but she doesn’t know that at first.

    In Seraphina the heroine is the ultimate outsider, a product of two different species that hate and distrust each other and she has to hide half her heritage and identity. The loss of innocence moment takes place in a flashback, when she realizes a beloved uncle is not human and that she is something other than just human.

    In the Taylor series there is a series of disillusionments, beginning when the heroine is cut off from her family, which leads her to realize the reason her family has required her to be secretive is that they were in grave danger. Two of the central questions are what were they hiding from her and whether she can ever be reunited with them again.

    In the Turner series the coming of age comes in early in book two (book one reads more like MG than YA to me), when the hero’s right hand is cut off. He has to learn to cope with his new disability, not just physically but also mentally and emotionally, as well as cope with his feelings about the people who cut off his hand.

    In all these books, just as in HMC, the characters come into their own powers, learn more about who they are, find they have a role to play or form a community that cares about them. That is their ultimate journey, but the journey begins with a moment of disillusionment.

    I suppose it could be said that there is a bit of this early on in HMC too, when Sophie comes to wonder if Fanny is using her. But since Sophie never really seems hurt or devastated by newfound knowledge about Fanny, it didn’t feel the same to me.

    Thank you for the recommendations!

    You’re welcome! I hope you try some of them; they are some of the best books I’ve read in recent years.

  28. Janine
    Jan 16, 2014 @ 16:04:51

    @MaryK: I can see why you and others love the book when you describe the curse as “a reflection of her inner self, old and hidebound.” I wish I had had the insight to view it that way while reading it, as maybe it would have changed my reaction. Maybe if we’d spent more time with the younger Sophie before the curse had come about? I wanted a stronger sense of who she was.

    For me young Sophie and old Sophie weren’t entirely the same character, so I also think I needed to be shown more of their commonalities in both states/ages. There was more emphasis on the differences between them, or at least, that’s how it read to me.

  29. Natalie
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 11:50:35

    Just looking at the grade… B-? Seriously? That’s one of the most delightful YA books I’ve read.

  30. Janine
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 11:52:55

    @Natalie: I understand that many, possibly even most, readers of this book love it a lot more than I did. But a reviewer can only grade based on her reading experience, and mine was mildly enjoyable.

  31. Natalie
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 22:16:16

    Well, if you expect more romance, then yes, it would be disappointment.
    Also
    “Nor is there a coming of age element in the story for Sophie or for any other character. That doesn’t make it a bad book by any stretch, but it does make it something different than what I expected.”

    Really? I thought both Sophie and Howl changed quite a bit (particularly Howl who became more responsible). I’m not a big fan of light and funny books but I still loved this one.

  32. Olivia Waite (@O_Waite)
    Jan 23, 2014 @ 18:52:17

    @Persnickety: A Tale of Time City is fantastic, many years and re-reads later. My mouth still waters at the thought of ordering a butter-pie. :)

    Re: the racism in Castle in the Air, I haven’t read it in quite some time but it’s got Orientalist fingerprints all over it.

  33. i
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 14:01:02

    I adore this book! I am seventeen and honestly I really liked it, altought you thought its public might be younger. Anyway, I think it analyses human nature in a pretty clever way! Firstly, the part of the Witch of the Waste left something for us to think about! Making pacts with demons so we can live young forever and to have a perfect body is actually a scary thing that says a lot about the human being, also letting this dominate you. I mean, we can really take some lessons from this, it reminds me a lot our actual society. And maybe it is over seeing things, but i just really wanted to show that it can bring up serious reflections. Sophie and Howl also are a study of human nature and you can see their development: sophie, a girl who is scared of her own shadow and is insecure as hell and don’t think she could ever do anything good enough, has to face life, her fears and other people! Howl, a coward boy that can’t really face anything also and doesn’t have any respect for anyone also changes and become a better person. And we can go on and on discussing various parts of the book and others characters, but honestly, it is not a foolish novel, we can reflex a lot from it. And of course you got disappointed if you were waiting a love story, it is more an adventurous story that brings a subjective reflexion of life itself, more than that, of our life and of what we want to do with it. Anyway, I was a bit sad that you didn’t like it that much, but I guess it’s life, right? I want now to apologize for my english, it’s not my first language so you might find some mistakes and some bad written parts! I look forward to see more reviews of you! I really like them!

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