Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (1986) 302 p.
I read a book when I was in primary school called Castle In The Air, a great little Arabian Nights-styled fantasy adventure which stands by itself for the most part, and only becomes confusing towards the end when it becomes clear that it’s a sequel to another book and a bunch of old characters pop up. I suppose my reading choices were limited by what the school library had in those days, because I never ended up reading the first one, Howl’s Moving Castle, or any of Jones’ other books – I think I tried Hexwood but found its plot far too confusing for my age. Howl’s Moving Castle was, however, adapted into a film by Hayao Miyazaki in 2004. It’s not his objective best (that would be Spirited Away) but it’s far and away my favourite of his films: a beautifully creative unconventional fantasy which also slots neatly into my beloved genre of “oddball crew on a weird vehicle.”
So anyway, I thought I’d give the book a shot. It was an experience oddly similar to reading The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje: obviously very different novels, but both cases where the film adaptations are equally brilliant, and pretty faithful – in some instances Miyazaki has replicated the book right down to certain gestures or seemingly unimportant lines of dialogue. The plot, in both the film and the book, revolves around a young woman named Sophie working in a hat shop in a town at the edge of a wild waste, which is the domain of the mysterious wizard Howl and his legendary moving castle, and also of an evil witch. After being paid a visit by the witch for reasons unknown, Sophie finds herself magically transformed into an old woman, with the curse also preventing her from telling anybody about what’s happened. She leaves the hat shop, sets off into the Waste and encounters Howl’s castle.
I think it’s a good book, but as with The English Patient, found it difficult to judge it separately from the film. I prefer the film, which is unsurprising since I’ve loved it for so long, but it’s also because the book has a few too many extraneous characters and plots, and is written in a sort of semi-fairytale style which makes the characters’ motivations and feelings more muddied. (That’s a first – the Japanese story making more sense.) I still liked it quite a bit, intend to read Castle In The Air again, and would recommend it for young fantasy readers. Watch the film as well, though.