Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three sisters. This would normally make her an Ugly Sister, but as Sophie is neither mean nor ugly, it just means that she will be the sister with the worst fortune, should she choose to seek it. So while Lettie (the second sister, who also avoided being an Ugly Sister for the same reasons) is apprenticed to the best bakers in town, and Martha (the third sister, who as the youngest will naturally have the best fortune) is apprenticed to a motherly old witch who will teach her everything she needs to know to safely seek her fortune, Sophie is apprenticed to her stepmother, Fanny Hatter, in the hat shop that she already knows how to run. Her days are limited to making hats and selling hats, but mostly making hats, because Fanny or one of the shop’s workers usually does all the sales. It proves to be a lonely existence indeed.
Or it is until the day when Sophie is alone in the shop and a rather nasty customer comes in. Beautiful though she is, this woman has a cold heart, and proves it by turning Sophie into an old woman for an insult that Sophie wasn’t even aware she had given! The Witch of the Waste (for that is who the beautiful lady is) tells Sophie that she won’t be able to tell anyone that she’s under a spell.
With this in mind, and knowing that she won’t be able to explain her new old age to her stepmother, Sophie leaves the shop. That night she takes refuge in the castle of Howl, a fearsome wizard who, rumor has it, has a taste for the hearts of young women. However, his apprentice, Michael, is nice to Sophie, and she soon makes a deal with Howl’s fire demon, Calcifer. She will break the spell that binds Calcifer to Howl if Calcifer will break her spell. Sophie is definitely in over her head, but with a little cunning and a bit of good fortune, she will manage to break her spell and return her life to normal.
I had been intending to read Diana Wynne Jones‘s Howl’s Moving Castle for a long time, especially after I watched the Miyazaki film by the same name. (Well, I didn’t like the film as much as I liked, say, My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away and Castle in the Sky, but I did think that the concept was intriguing.) I didn’t get around to it, though, until I found a copy at a used bookstore. And am I glad that I bought it! Howl’s Moving Castle definitely deserves a place on my bookshelf!
I suppose I should explain why. . . ? Well, for starters, Diana Wynne Jones is a brilliant author (which she has proved many times, like with The Merlin Conspiracy). But if you need specifics, I’ll start with Sophie and work my way through from there.
Sophie Hatter starts out mousey and bashful, and through her curse of old age learns to be confident and quite unafraid of anything–even Wizard Howl. She learns and grows over the course of the storyline, and I don’t want to reveal too much, but I’ll say this: What comes as a surprise to Sophie is really no surprise at all, when you think about it.
If there was a Favorite Character contest for this story, then it would be hard for me to choose between Sophie and Howl. Sophie is a great character, but Howl is just so wonderfully contrary that I can’t help but like him (and laugh at him). And he’s an enemy of the Witch of the Waste, too, which is another point in his favor. Now that I think about it, Howl is a more complex character than Sophie is–no wonder he steals the show!
Now, Howl’s Moving Castle is very much plot-driven; I don’t want you think that it is solely character-driven because of my love for the characters. Sophie’s curse is the catalyst for this, to which you can add Howl and the Witch’s rivalry, Sophie’s sisters’ cunning, and a plot involving the country’s prince and head wizard.
However, despite the amount of suspense, Howl’s Moving Castle is a book that is full of sometimes slow-moving prose. Paragraphs sometimes take up full pages! This doesn’t detract from the book’s suspense at all, and the descriptions contained in those long paragraphs add to its aura of wonder. (Is it any wonder that I consider Diana Wynne Jones brilliant?)
After you read Howl’s Moving Castle, check out its sequels: Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways. I consider Howl’s Moving Castle the best book of the lot, but the other two are certainly worth checking out. And, as always, feel free to share you thoughts below!