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REVIEW:  Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

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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REVIEW:  Vicious Moon by Lee Roland

REVIEW: Vicious Moon by Lee Roland

Dear Lee Roland:

I confess, I picked this book up, expecting to put it down after a few pages, since I realized that this was the third book in a series, but the voice of Nyx Ianira just sucked me in. Unfortunately, that was the only thing that kept me reading.

Vicious Moon | Lee RolandDespite an idyllic-sounding childhood growing up in the swamps of southern Georgia, Nyx has spent the early years of her adult life cut off from the rest of her witch family. Rather than bowing to pressure from her coven to get married and start making witch babies, her Nyx’s response is to run away from home, join the army and spend ten years fighting in the world’s most brutal spots. When three Sisters of Justice who are basically the witch executioners, show up, Nyx runs, only to be taken rather easily by them. To her surprise, they dump her at her kindly old grandmother’s home. Apparently Nyx isn’t a “great communicator” having spent the last decade without any contact with her family, which is why her grandmother had them bring Nyx home to have a chat.

One would think that Nyx’s lovely grandmother would be at least a little peeved about having to send an execution squad in order to spend some time with her granddaughter, but no. Grandmother just welcomes Nyx, and sends her on a mission to find Nyx’s missing sister, Marisol. Nyx, despite painting her sister as the perfect witch in contrast to her own, self-described magical incompetence, immediately accedes to her grandmother’s request. As a bit of a Mary Sue-heroine, there is no hesitation on Nyx’s part, no jealousy that her grandmother didn’t set out to find Nyx when she disappeared years ago. And that’s the problem with this book; there’s little emotional nuance unless it is directly related to the plot.

Moreover, I found most of the characters to feel rather flat, except for the evil ones who are kind of ambiguously-evil-possibly-misunderstood-in-a-way-that-potentially-sets-them-up-to-be-protagonists-of-future-novels. In particular, I found Etienne, the hero to be a very generic version of the tall handsome tortured mercenary hero. As head of the captured demon Aiako’s army (who is bound by the Earth Mother to a derelict part of downtown Duivel, Missouri near a dimensional portal), Etienne is the foe-turned eventual lover. He’s got a serious thing against witches, having been enslaved by an evil one for years and to say he doesn’t trust Nyx is an understatement. Yet still, Etienne’s caveman overprotective instincts come out, despite the fact that Nyx is supposed to be just as much of a hardcore merc as he is. In fact, Etienne’s second in command, a dude by the name of Darrow is one of Nyx’s former comrades. Darrow is the generic mandatory-friend-who-gives-relationship-advice-and-by-which-we-learn-backstory. Since Darrow supposedly has had some death defying adventures with Nyx, Etienne’s determination to keep Nyx safe by installing her at their base not only undercuts Nyx’s alleged abilities, making her feel more like a Mary Sue, but feels like a forced plot point to ensure the two interact.

In addition towards the end, secrets are revealed in a way that I think should be rather unforgivable, considering the way that the characters were depicted. Etienne is described as a survivor of demon torture and fears only one thing: being enslaved by a witch again. In order to save their lives, Nyx does what Etienne fears most without any explanation. I didn’t understand why Nyx didn’t explain what she would be doing but I feel like the scene as it was depicted could have allowed time for explanation, making her come off as particularly insensitive. Of course, maybe Nyx was making up for the fact that the Etienne knowingly possessed knowledge that could have helped Nyx with her search for her sister and never gave it to her until it was too late. But that makes him much less of the kind of hero I want to read about.

Other issues I had was that as the novel progresses, Nyx transforms more and more into a Mary Sue, accessing powers she never had before and discovering more about her unique and powerful heritage. This kind of character progression is rather classic but what makes this rather ho-hum is that she seems to suffer few consequences.

The best part of this book, and pretty much the only thing that kept me going was the voice. Nyx was like Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse version of Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels; deadly competent in terms of combat but kind of clueless otherwise. I only wish the story and the characters had been better.

C-
Amy

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