Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Air, by Diana Wynne Jones

Yes. More Diana Wynne Jones. You’ll learn to love her. 🙂

I read Howl’s Moving Castle a couple years ago (yes, implant after the movie came out – mock me later) but didn’t get around to reading the ‘sequel’ until I found both of them together in a SFBC omnibus. I loved Howl’s Moving Castle the first time and nothing changed, and Castle in the Air is definitely enjoyable, if not quite worthy of ‘sequel’ status.

Howl’s Moving Castle is set in Jones’s normal style of just-off-reality fantasy world. It’s not the same as the Chrestomanci world or even The Dark Lord of Derkholm‘s world. The country is called Ingary, and there’s magic: wizards, witches, and the like. This book could even possibly be classified as steampunk, if one wanted to: that Victorian level of technology exists. Most of it, however, is used in Howl’s . . . moving castle.

The main character is Sophie Hatter; at the beginning of the story she is one of three sisters whose father owns a hat shop. It’s implied that she’s seventeen or eighteen; she has one younger full sister and one younger half sister. Their father dies quite early on, and the sisters are apprenticed off. Sophie, as the eldest, is officially apprenticed in the hat shop, in order to inherit it. Lettie, the full sister, is apprenticed in a pastry shop, and Martha, the half-sister, is apprenticed to a witch. Sophie has an undetected magical talent: when she talks to inanimate objects, such as hats, they listen. For example, she told a bonnet that it was young and fresh, and therefore it made the owner look young and fresh. Unfortunately, the Witch of the Waste had issues with this, as well as Sophie’s impertinence, and when she visits the hat shop, she turns Sophie into an old woman.

Sophie’s not terribly happy with this, so she goes to find the Great Wizard Howl. That turns out not to be terribly difficult, as his moving castle makes a lot of noise. She finds him and – he’s not what she expected. Young, for one thing. Vain, for another. Since Sophie can’t tell anyone that she’s under a spell, she invites herself into the castle and starts cleaning, hoping to stay around long enough for him to figure it out.

Howl, however, is being dragged into helping the king find his brother and the Royal Wizard Suliman, both of whom have disappeared recently. Add to this a fire demon named Calcifer, an identity switch between Sophie’s sisters, and the Witch of the Waste coming back around, and you’ve got yourself a plot.

Castle in the Air starts with a dreamy young man named Abdullah who sells carpets in a country somewhat to the south of Ingary. A mysterious stranger sells him a flying carpet but doesn’t tell him the magic word to make it fly. Abdullah, however, can say the word in his sleep. This causes the carpet to take him to the garden of the lady of his dreams, who turns out to be the local princess. The sultan (her father) gets wind of this and right before Abdullah is forced to flee, the princess is kidnapped. Naturally Abdullah goes after her. To this story, add a genie in a bottle, a lost prince, a very fierce mama cat and her kitten, a few djinni, and the aforementioned Castle in the Air, turn into a pan, bake at 350 degrees for 200 pages, and you get an interesting story.

Howl’s Moving Castle has the usual fantasy-tropes-turned-a-bit style that we’ve gotten used to in Jones. The main characters are interesting: Sophie, of course, who is practical but not spunky; Howl, who isn’t quite what he appears to be; Calcifer, the fire demon, who’s definitely temperamental. One of my favorite characters is Sophie’s stepmother, Fanny. She’s ambiguous – one moment she’s shown as being a loving mother to all three daughters, regardless of birth mother, and then the next moment it’s suggested that she intentionally gave Sophie’s sisters the wrong apprenticeships. Towards the end it’s shown that she marries a rich man, but did she do that for love or money? And if she married for money, is that really a problem in her situation? Sophie never quite makes up her mind, and it’s a complicated relationship. I enjoyed that, since a lot of other relationships were quite simple.

Castle in the Air is fun and interesting but not quite as clever as Howl’s Moving Castle. I enjoyed the other culture and their form of speech that employs a lot of hyperbole, such as:

“Alas, this poor salesman can only stretch to three copper coins for this most ornamental of rugs,” he observed. “It is the limit of my slender purse. Times are hard, O captain of many camels. Is the price acceptable in any way?” (Castle in the Air, p. 209 in my Wizard’s Castle omnibus edition.)

Abdullah and his princess, unfortunately, are not quite as compelling and likable characters as Sophie and Howl. There’s a character called ‘the soldier’ for a good portion of the book, and it still isn’t clear to me why Abdullah never asked his name. Luckily, the rest of the ensemble cast is interesting and zany and the book comes to a triumphant close.

The worldbuilding is fairly good. We get glimpses – in both books – of other cities in Ingary as well as Rashpuht (or Zanzib; I think this fact changes at least once). Nothing seems out of place, and she gives enough details that you can form the world on its own. Her strength in these books at least is her plot and her secondary characters, and both are very well-done.

Howl’s Moving Castle gets 5/5 stars, and Castle in the Air 4/5.

3 thoughts on “Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Air, by Diana Wynne Jones”

  1. Howl’s Moving Castle is one of my favorute books. Sophie and Howl are so quirky and flawed that one can’t help but love them! Castle in the Air didn’t impress me as much as Howl’s Moving Castle.

  2. Huh, I hadn’t given Fanny that much thought, but you’re right. She is an interesting character. Loved what you had to say about the books… I just reread Castle in the Air, and I enjoyed it so much more the second time around.

    House of Many Ways is out soon…

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