2015 Reading Journey: Howl’s Moving Castle

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Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (1986)

I had to go fairly far afield to look for something in the 80s I hadn’t read that I wanted to. For reference, I turned 10 at the end of 1980, sending me to university in 1989 where, for another four years and change, I continued to add to my library through the systematic looting of local used bookstores. The 80s were my prime reading time as much as they were (and are) my prime music time.

And, unlike for a couple of the previous stops on the journey, I’ve seen the movie this got made into, the spectacular animated feature by Studio Ghibli headed by Miyazaki-san, and loved it. Still, I know what frequently happens to books made into movies: things get changed.

So, what kind of surprise lay in wait for me?

I should probably say mixed, but I’m going to go with pleasant overall. The movie borrows liberally from the book, though it doesn’t tell quite the same story. The book is short, but not as short as it seems while you’re reading it, and packs a lot in.

Though not a lot of description. There is some, but just enough to give you the flavour of the world you’re reading in. The focus is far more on the characters, mainly seen through the eyes of the protagonist, Sophie. In the book, we get Sophie’s sisters her impressions and the growth of the people and events and places around her. We get Sophie’s growth as a person and as a witch/wizard and we get her learning about herself and making the people around her better than they were, often without even knowing it.

There’s a fairy tale feeling to the book, but far more clever than the average bash you over the head with the moral fairy tale. This isn’t about listening to your parents or not going into the deep, dark forest, or telling the truth. Howl’s moving castle is about discovering yourself, and this is true for whatever character you’re looking at, though admittedly some of the minor characters have a particularly easy time at it, or at least seem to while having their personal journeys off screen.

The writing also often assumes that the reader has a brain, which is very untypical of fairy tales, giving you enough information to understand what’s going on but leaving it up to you to fill in little gaps to paint a complete picture. This is something I feel is missing in a lot of contemporary fantasy, letting the reader have some imagination involved in completing the world. A lot of stuff has too much description porn and doesn’t leave enough space for me to help build the world. Howl’s Moving Castle gives me that space, and that helps invest me more in the story.

The magic system, if there is one, exactly, is never clearly spelled out (pun intended) but, aside from the fire demon Chalcifer taking care of the castle itself, most of the magic is actually incidental to the story. I do wonder if it will become more important in future volumes because yes, this is the first book in a series. It isn’t written that way, but does leave things open for future tales to be told in the world. I think there are six books altogether.

Overall rating: 4 stars. I really enjoyed this story, perhaps in part because I love the movie, but the movie is clearly an adaptation and there’s definitely more to chew on here. Anyone who enjoys themes of growth and discovery should enjoy this story. It’s worth noting that there are also a few call out references and easter eggs hidden for those who might want to look for them. They’re not necessarily subtle, but slide into the text unobtrusively. The ones I caught all made me smile.

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