Diana Wynne Jones
Completed 7/7/2020, Reviewed 7/7/2020
I feel like a humbug giving this beloved book only three stars. I liked the book, but wasn’t magically transported like I was expecting to be. I didn’t identify with the main character, but liked things about her. I actually liked some of the secondary characters better. I thought the world-building was alright. There were some fun, fantastical happenings, but overall, I wasn’t blown away. The prose was very matter of fact, which I guess would be expected of a children’s novel. Still, I thought it could have been written with a little more oomph.
Sophie is the oldest of three girls. That traditionally means she’s going to have an uninspired life. When her father dies, her step mother sends one younger sister to apprentice to a witch and the other to apprentice to a baker. Sophie she asks to stay and apprentice at the family hat shop. One day, the Witch of the Waste comes into the shop and angrily turns Sophie into an old woman. Distraught, Sophie leaves the shop and goes to Howl’s moving castle to see if he can lift the curse. Of course, the rule of the curse is that she cannot speak of it, so she poses as a housekeeper and cleans the inside of the castle while waiting for Howl to lift the curse. Besides Howl, she meets Michael his apprentice and Calcifer, a demon manifested as fire in the fireplace. She befriends Michael and Calcifer, but Howl is kind of a slimy, slippery guy who she seems to aggravate at least once a day. As the castle moves about, they have many adventures, like running from the animated scarecrow, convincing the king not to choose Howl as the Royal Wizard, and going into a parallel universe (ours).
My favorite characters were Michael and Calcifer. Even though Michael isn’t very present in the book, I found him to be really sweet. He tries his best to be a good apprentice, as well as a help to Sophie. Calcifer was pretty cool. He’s a fire demon who has a contract with Howl to support his magic. Just like Sophie’s inability to explain her lot, he cannot tell anyone how to break the contract. Sophie promises to try though, in exchange for breaking her own curse. Calcifer has a good relationship with Michael and Sophie, but like them, not a very good one with Howl.
Sophie, however, is the main character. She doesn’t mind being old because she is a healthy old woman. She does mind being the eldest child of the family though, believing she won’t amount to anything. Her low self-esteem runs through most of the book, even though she grows by leaps and bounds during her time in the castle. Perhaps her most notable growth is when she realizes she has some magical ability. But she spends most of her time resentful at her lot in life and angry with Howl. I thought it got kind of old. I would have liked to have seen her realize her growth and have that reflected in her behavior as the book progressed.
I liked the form of the book. The chapters were episodic, with a different adventure happening every time. It made the book very easy reading. Of course, it’s a children’s novel and one would expect it to be easy reading.
So I give the book three stars out of five. It was good and enjoyable, but left me wanting something a little more toothsome. When I compare it to the early Harry Potter novels, it feels like it was missing something the HP books had, a warmth, some character development, empathy for Sophie. Having read the book now, I’d like to see the movie again. I saw it quite a few years ago and would like to see it again just to see how it compares to the book. If it were just me, I wouldn’t recommend this to adults unless you were reading it to your children. But my opinion is not the general consensus out there. A lot of people LOVE this book. So I’d recommend it to see if you have the same reaction as I do, or if you are in the majority.