Premise (and cover image fromIndiebound)
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.
Fairy Tales & Adventure
Right from the start, Howl’s Moving Castle uses and toys with traditional fairy tale motifs. The disappointing fates of elder children and spectacular use of seven-league boots factor hugely into the plot and action of the story. The oldest of three sisters, Sophie remains convinced that she will never have an exciting or successful life because she is the eldest. Only the youngest child goes on to do great things and Sophie is disappointed with and resigned to her lot in life. Sophie’s life, however, takes an interesting turn when she’s cursed and turned into an old woman. As an old lady her adventure starts and her naturally curiosity leads her straight to Howl, his ever-shifting castle, and the power of her own magic. This story is chock full of adventure – exploring new lands, battles between good and evil, and enchanted creatures.
Fantastic Cast of Characters
Sophie serves as our surrogate for all the wonder and questions Howl and his magic bring. She’s wary of Howl’s dastardly reputation and her place in his home. The longer she stays with Howl, the more she grows, especially in terms of power and realizing her destiny isn’t preordained. Sophie’s candid with herself and her emotions help her channel her budding enchantments. Neither the damsel in distress nor the stock “strong female character,” our protagonist is nicely relatable.
Howl, on the other hand, swaths himself in mystery, rumor and beauty product. The typical tempestuous wizard, he does what he wants when he wants and exudes the necessary charm to pull it off. With a beauty regimen second to none, the young wizard changes clothes and personas as often as he woos young women. Howl’s cool exterior masks a kind man who subtly cares about and for the individuals in his life. The supporting cast – ranging from experience and novice wizards, divergent sisters, hat makers, and fire demons – is diverse. Each character is distinctive and possesses his or her own purpose within in the story. Calcifer’s snarky, sassy attitude infuse the story with humor while contrasting nicely with our two human protagonists.
Jones creates an accessible high fantasy world featuring outings to other fantastic realms, including ours. The world hopping and magic reminded me a bit of Garth Nix’s Aborhorsen series but for a younger audience. During a brief trip to grand ol’ Wales, we discover ‘Howl’ is a dramatic variant spelling for the more bland ‘Howell’. Howl’s modern origins explain his stark difference in attitude and reverence toward magic from the more awed, medieval worlds he visits. The doors and windows in his castle open onto an enchanting set of worlds spanning lush gardens, bleak wastelands, seaside towns, and the magical land of Wales, GB.
Chapters are short and the action parceled out over multiple sections, making it a wonderfully quick read. Each chapter is self-contained and lets the reader drop and pick up the story up at will. This structuring makes it a great pick for nightly reading or preset reading times.
Howl’s mystery makes him difficult to like and relate to. He’s unabashedly callous in love and ceases caring for his various beloveds once she returns his affections. Add in his inability to share vital information and his childish, slime flooding temper tantrums: Howl’s very unlikabe. Perhaps these glaring flaws are due to giving his heart to Calcifer, but I was less than impressed with his demeanor. Sophie remarks early on about a glassy-like sheen to his eyes. This dull look could imply Howl’s unable to fully empathize with the world and people around him. Either way, it’s apparent these characters and this book are meant for a middle-grade-to-younger audience. Maybe children are more likely to relate to Howl’s emotional upheavals and not find them incredibly frustrating.
Sophie’s Self-Scolding and Whining
If there were on aspect of this book classified as continually irritating, it would be this one. Sophie’s constantly admonishing herself for worsening everything. The first couple of mishaps I could understand; no one wants to bring a situation from bad to worse. But as time goes on, her mistakes are due to critical information not being shared by Howl. Our witchy heroine also repetitively laments about how nothing can go right for her since she’s eldest and doomed to failure. I understand Sophie feels responsible for the wrong turns her impulsiveness takes, but self-blame and bemoaning her fate as an eldest sibling gets old very quickly. You’re working to undo two curses while living in wizard’s enchanted, moving castle. Sophie. Sweetie. You’re not problem-prone because you’re the eldest; you simply don’t think about the consequences of your actions. You’re living an adventure – know it and enjoy it!!!
Bulky Cast, Meandering Plot
While entertaining, the sheer number of supporting characters threatens to become overwhelming. When everyone Sophie has met shows up at Howl’s to visit her, it took me a few long moments to remember who exactly everyone was. Distinguishing between the two Letties (the real Lettie and her sister Martha) and keeping each girl’s lovers clear proves a bit tricky and unnecessarily confusing. The story’s plot also plods along. Sophie’s curse happens pretty quickly, but her journey to Howl’s and subsequent adventures feel too drawn out and lack any real sense of mystery or urgency. Wizard Sulliman’s disappearance, the stalking scarecrow, breaking Sophie’s curse and Howl and Calcifer’s contract – all these vital plot points take forever to be resolved. And by the end, I found myself not really caring about these various threads. I just wanted the story to resolve itself.
3 out of 5 Stars
A delightful and fresh fairy-tale infused story for young readers. The book features quirky magic and a plucky heroine who grows into her own magic and confidence with plenty of characters to follow and rediscover in sequels. Personally, the book would have been more enjoyable if I’d read it as a youngster and was less familiar with the story’s high standing in children’s lit and young readers’ hearts.