Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Original Pub. Date: 1986
I'm not sure how I missed this one, since I was a bit of a Diana Wynne Jones junkie as a kid, but it somehow never made it into my hot little hands until a couple of weeks ago. I still haven't seen the movie, and I don't intend to -- anyone looking for an adaptation review, go elsewhere.*
Like all of Jones's books, or at least those I've read, Howl's Moving Castle is an object lesson in what other young adult fantasy authors are doing wrong. Of course, it was written in a kinder, gentler age, when it wasn't considered standard for tween girls to fantasize about losing their virginities to much older men who turn into animals on the weekend. So there's that.
Also like all of Jones's books, or at least those I've read, this book features a complex plot, a dash of slapstick, and a little bit of actual menace for savor. As the story opens, our heroine Sophie is lamenting the fact that she's stuck at home making hats while her two younger sisters are off following their dreams (a bakery and witchcraft lessons, respectively). As the eldest, fairy tale law decrees that she can't have any adventures -- at least until another witch takes a dislike to Sophie and turns her into an old woman out of spite.
Sophie runs away and ends up joining the moving-castle household of the charming, undisciplined lothario Wizard Howl, who's also under a curse. Other characters include a fire demon bound to serve in the fireplace (who refuses to be cooked over unless he gets some of the bacon), an apprentice wizard, a semi-sentient scarecrow, sisters in disguise, some witches, and the king. Trying to describe the plot would merely give spoilers, so suffice to say this is a charming, light read suitable for anyone who's sick of angsty vampires.
Lately I've complained about how all the mainstream fantasy book lists I find are actually made up of young adult fantasy. The strong implication was that young adult fantasy isn't very good, so it's time to qualify that statement. Adult fantasy isn't very good these days, either; the big difference between the two seems to be that in adult fantasy, the gross vampire sex takes place right in front of the reader, while in YA fantasy it often happens off-screen, as it were. Or, if the YA fantasy is of a different stripe, no sex happens at all, and instead all females within range are forcibly empowered, whether they like it or not.
This doesn't generally apply to YA fantasy written before the last fifteen years or so, and so all negative commentary on the subgenre should be assumed to apply only after that cut-off point. No one is empowered in Howl's Moving Castle, off-beat sexual antics are (appropriately for the target age group) frowned on a bit, and the story's entertaining. Three and a half stars.
* Gosh, I think I'm really getting the hang of that increasing blog traffic thing!