- The Good: Witches, wizards, missing princes, demons, hats, and hearts! Also, a moving castle.
- The Bad: Rushed third act
- The Literary: Themes of destiny, youth, and courage. References to classic literary works!
Meek and mild Sophie, the eldest of three sisters, accepts her fate in life as a hat shop clerk until she is rudely transformed into an old woman in an encounter with the Witch of the Waste. Knowing no one will recognize her, Sophie strikes out on her own, moving into wizard Howl’s moving castle, a black imposing structure with four thin turrets, which he shares with the fire demon Calcifer and young apprentice Michael.
There is no way to talk about this book and not mention the movie adaptation of this book. Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle is iconic, so much so that I only picked up the book because of the film. Now that I’ve consumed both, I’m declaring this is the best book to film adaptation that changes everything about story. That’s a big statement, I know. But I don’t want to spend the entire review comparing the two, so if you haven’t seen the movie, just go.
In the novel, Jones subverts many tropes of the fairy tale genre, while holding onto an otherworldly magic. In the town of Market Chipping in the magical kingdom of Ingary, Sophie only accepts her fate because she is the eldest sister. Everyone knows that the eldest must follow in the family business, the middle will need to rely on finding a husband and having lots of children, and the youngest is the sister to find a new way. Her young stepmother isn’t cruel, and all of her sisters are lovely and kind to one another.
Even though Sophie wishes she could be more bold, she resigns to her role. She works long hours, preferring the company of hats instead of customers. She talks to her hats, giving them fortunes as if they were animate. When customers who purchase Sophie’s hats “marry into money” or “have a heart of gold” as Sophie had predicted, you begin to see a hint of Sophie’s magical powers.
It’s the Witch of the Waste who sees Sophie’s potential after Sophie is mistaken for her sister. The Witch is a truly terrifying antagonist, one of the most powerful magicians in all of Ingary, exiled by the King and jilted by Howl. The Witch transforms Sophie into an old crone and Sophie’s life changes forever. Although she’s lost everything, she immediately learns that she doesn’t care what people think anymore, and her confidence multiplies overnight. She’s more herself in a ninety-year-old’s body than she’s ever been.
The wizard Howl is known to eat the souls of young girls, but since Sophie’s an old woman she figures she’s safe and just might be the person to set all those souls free. Howl is moody, vain, and a playboy, constantly dyeing his hair and primping for the next female conquest, lying to get out of responsibilities, while Michael performs all of the spells for their paying customers. But Howl also turns out to be intelligent and endearing, even if he hails from the mysterious country of Wales.
Not only is Sophie under a spell and Calcifer under a magical contract with Howl, but Howl himself is cursed as well. His curse is in the form of a poem, specifically John Donne’s song “Goe and catche a falling starre”, which the characters attempt to decode by interpreting it literally. In addition to the references to classic poetry, Howl references Alice in Wonderland when he tells Sophie “We can’t all be Mad Hatters”, and Hamlet with the recognizable “Alas, poor Yorick!” One of Howl’s aliases is Pendragon, and two other minor characters are named Percival and Gareth, knights of the Round Table. You might even say the Witch of the Waste sounds a lot like the Wicked Witch of the West from the Oz novels.
If you’re ready for some good old fashioned YA fantasy, with spells and fire demons, great character arcs and reimagined tropes, pick this one up!