It’s been a long time since I read Diana Wynne Jones’s YA novel Howl’s Moving Castle, long enough that reading it again was almost like reading it for the first time. I don’t remember what I thought of it that first time, other than that I liked it, but I know I noticed a lot more this time around. So here’s some of what I noticed.
1—A Contradictory Heroine
Sophie Hatter has a unique voice, somehow both whimsical and matter of fact. She’s a contradictory character—stern and commanding, yet withdrawing. One of the most striking things about Sophie is how little she values herself, even while doing extraordinary things. Sophie spends the majority of the book hiding not only in a frumpy grey dress, but in a frumpy old body—she’d been cursed, but perpetuated the curse by her own desire. And yet, when cursed, Sophie uses now being an old woman as an excuse to herself to go get the life she wants.
When told she has magic, strong magic, Sophie isn’t surprised. She’s known, just never acknowledged her power. And even still, she doesn’t think of herself as having any potential.
This struck me because I know as a young woman I didn’t much value myself either. Even now I struggle with this, only partly because of my struggle with depression. It’s a problem many people struggle with, and this is what grounds a very fantastical world in reality—the reality of human emotion.
It’s hard to describe the magic in Howl’s Moving Castle—whimsical and nonsensical and yet it makes sense. I love the magic of this world. There’s Calcifer, Howl’s demon, and living falling stars. There’s animated scarecrows and, thanks to Sophie, many magic hats. Howl’s Moving Castle also has one of the creepiest things—the Witch of the Waste made several conglomerate people, using pieces of living humans to create her perfect human. Then used the scrap parts to make a flunky, one with confused memories and a personality.
I’d also forgotten that Howl’s Moving Castle is technically a portal fantasy, unique in that it isn’t the protagonist who goes through. …Well, ok, she does, but only for a brief visit. Howl is originally from Wales and that typical “stranger in a strange world” story is in his past. Instead, Howl is an established magician in the kingdom of Ingary, seeking to make his reputation and the next move in his career. This is when Sophie enters and upends his life.
Sophie and Howl don’t do the typical bill and coo stuff, thank gods. They have an antagonistic romance—they bicker, but not in a hateful way. Antagonistic romance is less done and so doesn’t have the same shortcuts built in that typical romance does, and which so often leads to lazy depictions of the build up. With Sophie and Howl, it’s a subtle thing. The romance doesn’t feel like the focus—Sophie is, which I find refreshing. And though antagonistic, the romance isn’t creepy—I am NOT a fan of the controlling-stalker-boyfriend trope.
It’s a good book for young women to read—young people period, of whatever gender. Adults too. It’s good to remember to value ourselves, to think critically about the impressions we take on from other people, even loved ones (sometimes especially loved ones). And it’s just a damned fun book.