Howl’s Moving Castle (and Sequels)

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Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones ✦Recorded Books, 2008 ✦ Originally published by Greenwillow Books, 1989 ✦ ISBN (Recorded Books): 9781436159500; digital 9781456107642

Summary from publisher:

Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl’s castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there’s far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye.

Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones ✦ Recorded Books, 2009 ✦ Originally published by Greenwillow Books, 1991 ✦ ISBN (Recorded Books): 9781436161183; digital 9781456107710

Summary from publisher:

Young merchant Abdullah leads a humble life. Or he did until a stranger sold him a threadbare—and disagreeable—magic carpet. Now Abdullah is caught in the middle of his grand daydreams. Waking one night in a luxurious garden, he meets and falls instantly in love with the beautiful and clever Flower-in-the-Night. But a wicked djinn sweeps the princess away right before Abdullah’s eyes, leaving the young man no choice but to follow. This is no ordinary quest, however, for Flower-in-the-Night isn’t all the djinn has stolen. Abdullah will have the so-called help of the cantankerous carpet, a cranky genie in a bottle, a dishonest soldier, and a very opinionated black cat. Will this motley crew be able to find the djinn’s mysterious dwelling and rescue a castle full of princesses?

House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones ✦ Recorded Books, 2009 ✦ Originally published by Greenwillow Books, 2008 ✦ ISBN (Recorded Books): 9781436161299; digital 9781456107727

Summary from publisher:

When Charmain Baker agreed to look after her great-uncle’s house, she thought she was getting blissful, parent-free time to read. She didn’t realize that the house bent space and time, and she did not expect to become responsible for an extremely magical stray dog and a muddled young apprentice wizard. Now, somehow, she’s been targeted by a terrifying creature called a lubbock, too, and become central to the king’s urgent search for the fabled Elfgift that will save the country. The king is so desperate to find the Elfgift, he’s called in an intimidating sorceress named Sophie to help. And where Sophie is, the great Wizard Howl and fire demon Calcifer won’t be far behind. How did respectable Charmain end up in such a mess, and how will she get herself out of it?

I’ve got to make up my mind how to denote audiobooks… And how to decide what covers to use when I have multiple choices (in this case, I did not use the audiobook covers because they’re frankly hideous). I used the covers that match the original House of Many Ways cover mostly because they’re the print versions I own.

These are all re-reads, but it’s been years since I read them. I picked up Howl’s in one of Audible’s sales and then grabbed the other two after finishing that one because I didn’t want to stop. Diana Wynne Jones is possibly my favorite writer. She’s so good at characters and worldbuilding both.

These three are considered a trilogy, although there’s not a really good group name for them (you can call them the Howl’s Moving Castle trilogy but that’s a mouthful… I often see it shortened to Castle Trilogy” which I think is better, although the castle barely features in the third one. However, reading Howl’s Moving Castle and expecting Castle in the Air to be the further adventures of Sophie and Howl is a mistake. They’re related, but they’re not really sequels to one another.

Howl’s Moving Castle plays with fairy tale tropes, as Sophie chalks most of the boring life situation she finds herself in up to being the eldest child, when everyone knows it’s the youngest child who is the one who is supposed to go out in the world and be successful. The spell she’s put under transforms her into an old woman (she refers to herself as being 90 on a number of occasions), and she decides to leave home as a last resort more than anything else, and ends up more or less stumbling into the titular moving castle. Sophie was a timid girl before the Witch of the Waste put the spell on her, but as an old woman she just doesn’t see the point in worrying about Howl. So she moves in, and she learns over the course of the story that she actually is quite strong-willed, and has basically just never allowed herself to express that before. As with most DWJ books, there’s a lot going on besides that, and a lot of plot threads that seem like a mess until they get nicely tied up at the end. Jones is an indisputable master of the Chekhov’s Gun trope: nothing that comes up at the beginning of the book isn’t relevant somewhere later, from Sophie’s sisters’ changing places to the hat Sophie promises will marry money to the dog she finds in a bush when she first leaves home.

Sophie’s character can be somewhat frustrating, especially on a reread. She’s stubborn to the point of missing a lot of very obvious things, and, as Howl tells her later in the story, she just doesn’t think things through. She acts before she thinks constantly, misunderstands other people’s intentions, and even doesn’t realize she’s doing magic until someone else points it out to her. Howl, on the other hand, knows himself very well, knows exactly what he’s doing, and apparently just doesn’t really care about the impact his actions have on others (this is one of the many, many things the Ghibli film gets wrong… Howl is actually just kind of an asshole in the book, and a blatant coward, whereas in the movie he’s neither of those things). Jones’s characters in general tend to just go along with the situations they find themselves in, and in this book that means an awful lot of chaos is borne by everyone and they just make do.

Castle in the Air shifts its focus to the Sultanates of Rashpuht, a Middle East-inspired country somewhere South of Ingary, where Howl’s Moving Castle takes place. As such, this book has quite a few stereotyped caricatures, some of which are definitely more racist than others. There’s actually a lot of things that bother me in this book on a reread, such as the distant relations Abdullah is nearly forced to marry, two women whose entire characterization is that they’re fat, disgusting, and greedy, with the most emphasis being placed on how fat they are (mild spoiler alert: they are essentially given to the antagonist at the end of the book as a consolation because Abdullah feels sorry for him, and because they’re so desperate to marry anyone, seeing as they are fat and unattractive, they accept this without complaint).

As far as Abdullah’s attempt to rescue the awkwardly named Flower-in-the-Night, it turns out the djinn has been kidnapping princesses all over the world, and these princesses are really the strongest point of the book. They’re making the best of their situation while they try to figure out a way to rescue themselves, having all apparently given up on being rescued by the time Abdullah shows up. While he makes the plan that eventually succeeds, it’s merely because he has a bit of information they don’t have, and is better at bargaining due to having been a merchant most of his life.

Abdullah is presented as the hero of the story, but he’s not really shown as a romantic hero in any sense. He’s mostly just desperate, and most of his flashes of genius come out of that desperation. He knows his strengths and limitations fairly well, but he also knows how to talk people into doing what he wants, and he can be fairly conniving at times. He is, however, like Sophie in that he’s being used by various people for various purposes, except that he realizes it on his own over the course of the book instead of someone needing to tell him. Still, he never really lets it change how he deals with and treats people, and while Abdullah and Flower-in-the-Night’s romance is impromptu and sudden, the very fact that his initial reaction to her declaration of love is that he’s literally the first man she’s ever met and she can’t make that kind of decision so hastily is pretty refreshing (as is the way they actually have a serious discussion about their mutual feelings later on in the book instead of just stumbling through misunderstandings the way Sophie is prone to).

Of course Sophie, Howl, and Calcifer all have roles in this story, as well as a few other characters from Howl’s Moving Castle, but explaining them would be spoiling it. Really this book is more fun if you happen to pick it up after reading Howl’s with no knowledge that it’s at all related,  I think, although it’s clearly already too late for that if you’ve read this far in my review. I think if you read this book without having read Howl’s, on the other hand, their inclusion would be a bit mystifying, since they do seem to be tossed in with an expectation that the reader will recognize them.

House of Many Ways takes place in another, entirely different country: High Norland, which is a mountainous somewhere north of Ingary (possibly it doesn’t share a border with Ingary at all, but the geography is left much to the reader’s imagination). Charmain Baker is a somewhat spoiled, book-loving girl who’s never done a day’s work in her life and is suddenly tasked with looking after a magical house. Charmain’s desire to get out from under her very controlling mother’s thumb is what fuels her, and also the chance to get a position as a library assistant in the Royal Mansion, helping the elderly King and only slightly less elderly Princess of High Norland (the princess, of course, was among those kidnapped in Castle in the Air) catalog the Royal Library.

Were she not the focal character, Charmain would likely be insufferable. She doesn’t know how to do much of anything, and has a short temper and a selfish disposition. Since we’re privy to her thoughts, though, we know she doesn’t like the fact that she’s ignorant any more than those around her do, and she at least tries to take advice she is given to heart (such as when Peter informs her she has no tact). Mostly, Charmain just wants to be left alone with some books, a feeling which many of us can relate to. As the course of the story goes on, she gets more used to the concept of working with others towards the greater good (as long as it’s not Peter making her help with the laundry). There’s a really great scene when she’s angry at Peter for tidying up her room for her, not because she didn’t want it to be tidy, but because he’s ruining her personal growth by doing things for her so she doesn’t learn, as she puts it, “that things I leave lying around will stay lying around until I do something about it!”

Sophie and company are a little more integral to the plot in this story than in Castle in the Air, and as such feel less like cameos, although only someone who’s read at least Howl’s will really appreciate what Howl has done to himself in this story (I can’t imagine how Sophie puts up with him). I like how both Abdullah and Charmain find Sophie to be extremely intimidating even now that she’s no longer trapped in her old woman form that so terrified poor Michael and Calcifer in the original book.

Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Air are, to me at least, somewhat odd for children’s books (which is what they are typically considered). While Sophie is probably only eighteen in Howl‘s, she’s still an adult with a full time job at the start of the story, and Abdullah is, at the start of the story, a successful businessman. Both of them have fairly adult problems to solve (how many kids can relate to someone wishing their family would stop asking why they aren’t married yet?). Many of Diana Wynne Jones’s books have an all-ages feel to them, though, and these books are included. House of Many Ways, on the other hand, is actually about a child character (well, a teenager, but many middle-grade books focus on pre-teens or early teens), and feels overall more like an actual children’s book. This isn’t anything against any of these books, but as I didn’t really discover DWJ until I was an adult in the first place, I kind of wonder if kids these days (obligatory jokes about shaking a cane, get off my lawn, etc) would find the first two interesting at all, giving the vastness of their choices in reading material targeted at them concerning characters whose life situations probably hit closer to home. I would likely have loved them had I read them as a child, but I also started reading adult books in middle school because of a certain sense that children’s books were beneath me already at that point (my reading has gone rather backwards, since these days I often prefer middle grade over adult and those days I had to be persuaded to read Harry Potter because it was for kids and I was too busy reading Anne McCaffery and Mercedes Lackey novels).

On the audio aspect of these, all three are read by the same narrator, Jenny Sterlin, who has a voice that I find very soothing to listen to. She does not, however, seem to have a much varied arsenal of character voices, which isn’t a huge issue unless you do listen to them one after another like I did (and even then, I guess it’s not a huge issue, just a little disappointing). She also seemed to have forgotten the voice she used for Calcifer between Howl‘s Moving Castle and House of Many Ways. I’m pretty sure she’s given Howl a Welsh accent through which is definitely points to her.

If you haven’t read any of this series, please do. If you’ve never read any Diana Wynne Jones, this series is a good place to start. And if you’ve seen the awful Ghibli adaptation of Howl’s but never read the book, you’re really missing out.

It’s pretty likely I’ll end up reading more DWJ this year (I still haven’t read her final, posthumously-published novel or the last children’s book she published while still alive, and there’s a few others lurking at the periphery of the DWJ canon I haven’t ever actually read) since now I’ve caught the bug again, but it won’t be for a little while because I have writing I want to be doing and whenever I’m reading DWJ books I unconsciously mimic her style, which might not be a problem if I could keep that consistent but I can’t and it is pretty bad.

As a last note to other DWJ fans: I am now entirely convinced these books take place in the same universe as the Magids books (Deep Secret and The Merlin Conspiracy) if only because of delight at the potential havoc Howl could be unleashing on poor Rupert’s life. Also, imagine a Sophie-Maree team-up? I’m not sure either Howl or Rupert would survive that.

Review Summary (for all three!):

Story: 5/5, wonderfully crafted fantasies
Narration: 4/5, smooth narration but limited character voices

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