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Diana Wynne Jones - Howl's Moving Castle

Now this is more like it! Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones was so compelling that I couldn't put it down, even when it was getting a bit late and I needed sleep. As a result, my reading of it towards the end became a bit sloppy and I had to stop myself a few times to go back a few pages to see what I missed. No matter: this is one novel I'll be sure to pick up again some time. Despite being written for a Grade 6 reading level, it's a layered story that rewards repeated reading.
Diana Wynne Jones is the writer of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a catalogue of fantasy clichés, so it's no surprise that this novel starts out in a very familiar fantasy setting (a pre-modern, monarchical society with wizards and witches actually existing) and with a story cliché to turn on its head: the heroine, Sophie Hatter, is the oldest of three sisters, and therefore expects she will never amount to anything. Wynne Jones has been very succesful in fleshing out this idea with psychologically credible elder-sibling behaviours: Sophie accepts her lot in life, shows responsibility towards the younger sisters, trusts authority, believes what she is told and makes safe, respectable choices - or rather, lets her (on the whole benign) stepmother make those choices for her. Meanwhile, her sisters show talent, attractive personalities as well as physical beauty, and an ability to think outside the box. (Continues with minor spoilers)

After a run-in with a wicked witch, Sophie is transformed into a withered old crone. This forces her out of her comfortable surroundings. She seeks shelter in the home of the wizard Howl, who is said to be a wicked, heartless man stealing the hearts of young women; as a crone, Sophie figures she is at least safe from that. From her new perspective as an old woman, she observes Howl and the other companions in the castle (a kind of anti-Tardis that is much smaller on the inside than the outside), in an attempt to solve the puzzle that could free her and Howl's fire demon Calcifer from the hexes the two are under.
It's easy to see why Hayao Miyazaki saw Howl as a suitable novel to turn into a movie. It treads similar territory as his Spirited Away: the young (on the inside, at least) protagonist under a spell, in strange surroundings, having to learn both important life lessons and new rules for immediate survival, transformations, supporting characters who are not what they seem, and a message for young readers about their relationship to the adult world. This is clearest, at least in the book (I have not yet seen the movie, but will do so at the earliest opportunity), in the role of reputations and biased information in the novel. Early on, Sophie learns from her half-sister that mother/stepmother Fanny, who Sophie previously thinks of as kind, has really been exploiting them. From then on, Sophie sees her stepmother through that prism until Fanny's return late in the book. Howl has an evil reputation with the women of Sophie's home town, but Sophie finds out that apart from his tantrums and his womanising, he's actually a decent sort of wizard who works hard for his customers, takes in stragglers and often undercharges for his work. Howl is especially highly thought of by the King, to the point where to weasel out of a mission, the wizard asks Sophie to slander him at the court. All the time, harmless things are mistaken for harmful and vice versa, with dangerous consequences. Wynne Jones doesn't hammer home the message that Sophie has to learn to think for herself (and take risks, think outside of the box... in short, to stop being such an old woman), but weaves it through an interesting, imaginative story that, like the Harry Potter novels, is understandable to kids without kneeling down so far as to insult adults' intelligence. Buy this book.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 27, 2005 2:58 PM.

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