Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones fulfills the category “Book with a Great First Line” in the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge. The first line of the novel is “In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.” For a fantasy tale, I can’t imagine a better start.
Immediately with this first line, fairy tale elements have been invoked—the power of three and the destiny of children in families with more than one child. It seems no matter the number of children, the oldest gets the worst of it. Ms. Wynne Jones plays on this false belief for Sophie throughout the entire book. Sophie assumes she is doomed and accepts her “bad luck” readily. Also, using terms like “the land of…” and “seven-league boots,” the reader understands they are in another world, with magical items, that might engage other fairy tale rules.
Sophie is an ingenious character. I loved her from the start. She epitomized the eldest child, taking one for the team so her sisters could find their own way, staying at her father’s hat shop to help the family. Ms. Wynne Jones even gave us a semi-evil stepmother for Sophie to flee from. Small spoiler, Sophie does eventually leave her insignificant life and set out, with a black cloud (she made herself) about destiny. She does not go because she thinks she should. She is cursed by the Witch of the Waste—a powerful witch who scared the poop out of everyone, almost as much as the Wizard Howl, whose castle floats around the kingdom. Instead of staying home and hiding her curse, Sophie journeys out into the world and lands in Howl’s castle.
Her curse is another unique thing about the story. The Witch of the Waste turns Sophie into an old woman, and the girl embraces it. She stops hiding from the world, goes out and conquers it. I won’t spoil too much, but she is the hero of the tale. The curse allows her to throw off her worries. When she enters the Moving Castle, she bullies the fire, Calicfer, a fire demon, into letting her stay. She makes herself useful, needed, and loved in the castle. All on her own merits and despite being the eldest child. She embraces her “elderly,” and it’s perfect.
The plot becomes wonderfully complicated, with spells, poems, love tales, secrets, and doors into other realms. But the way Ms. Wynne Jones rolls the story out, none of the plots get tangled. Each runs through to its end like a tapestry. The tale could have gone horribly wrong if she hadn’t picked up each subplot thread and weaved it through. Don’t believe me? Watch the anime movie of the same title. The movie misses entire plot lines, and in the end, the tale is just a mess of threads with one big knot of Sophie in the middle.
I must spoil one thing. I listened to the tale on audio, as I do most of my books. (Reading on the run just works for my life. Audiobooks let me drive, exercise, and sew while getting my fill of stories.) Anyway, I was listening and had to stop the story. I called my husband over, excited that it included a Welsh accent. (It took me a minute to name it.) I read many books with British readers, some Scottish (David Tennant for example) but never Welsh. I was thrilled. And spoiler, Howl needed that accent and it made the novel even more perfect.
If you can’t tell, I enjoyed Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I give it Five Falling Stars.