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Classic Review: Howl's Moving Castle

G D Penman By G D Penman Published on January 8, 2017
This article was updated on February 8, 2017

While I am nowhere near to running out of classic science fiction, fantasy and horror books that have been terribly overlooked over the years, I am going to stretch my limitations just a little this year and include books that are nominally outside of my self-enforced limitations. In this case, a fantasy book that is also a children’s book.

I actually did read Diana Wynne Jones’ work when I was a child and I missed out on quite a bit of the depth as a result, nowadays it would more likely be filed into the nebulous “Young Adult” section which seems to stretch from the age of 12 all the way up to the age of 90.

Howl’s Moving Castle is one of her more “normal” fantasy books, up until the final third it plays out in the very straightforward manner of a slightly askew fairy-tale. There are a great deal of interconnecting sub-plots and minor twists and turns but it is only quite a distance in that the traits that made Jones’ other books so unique reared up. While the story works perfectly well in a self-contained fantasy world, the fact that all the wizards who fuel events come from our own world, and Wales in particular, adds a whole layer of depth to the plot and their interactions with others.

While these ideas and the intermeshing plots make for fascinating elements, the core of the book is the cast of characters. Every single person who is so much as mentioned later appears to either confirm or subvert the reader’s expectations about them, giving the sense of a real interconnected world where everyone is living out their very own story. Each character’s personal story tie into the ways that they interact with the world and many of them are as much a study of personality as the fantasy archetypes that they masquerade as.

Magic works in the book in many different ways, many of which seem contradictory and all of which work perfectly, from the complex spells and recipes that Howl teaches his apprentice to the contract magic that he has sealed with a demon to increase his personal power and even to the simple soft spoken magic that Sophie, our heroine, weaves into all of the objects that her loneliness drives her to speak with. Magic is at the heart of this fairy tale, from the curses that the Witch of the Wastes inflicts upon her victims to the ever-moving castle of the title, but it is the human element that makes it so satisfying. There is nothing magical about the relationships between the characters, beyond that very basic magic that we all seem to be capable of when it comes to caring about others.

Like all of Jones’ novels; Howl’s Moving Castle is a beautifully lyrical book with more than enough to keep adult readers enthralled and a simple enough story that there is no real barrier for entry. It comes highly recommended, even more so than most of the books that I call classics.

    G.D. Penman writes about queer monsters for a living. He is the author of Call Your Steel, The Year of the Knife, Heart of Winter, Apocrypha and many other books. He is also a full-time freelance ... Show More

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    Project Harmony
    I read Howl's Moving Castle at the end of last year. It is the basis for one of my favourite Studio Ghibli films (never quite surpassing my love for Spirited Away) and I was curious to see how different the book was. A bit of shock when the setting changed from a fantasy world to Wales, kind of crossing over to magical realism. I can see why this part of the plot was cut from the film, but after getting over my initial surprise I found that I quite liked it - gave the novel a distinctive quality that most modern YA fantasy books avoid because a lot of authors don't want to take a risk.

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