Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three sisters and as anyone who has read fairytales should know, the eldest of three will be “the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes”. Sophie is “not even the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success”. With this in mind, poor Sophie resigns herself to a quiet, dull life making hats in the family shop while her sisters leave home with more exciting ambitions. However, Sophie clearly has some magical powers, even if she doesn’t realise it, and the hats she makes (and unwittingly enchants) soon become famous.
Perhaps too famous though, because the wicked Witch of the Waste turns Sophie into an old lady as punishment for using magic (or as the Witch puts it for “meddl[ing] with things that belong to me”). Sophie is oddly comfortable with the transformation and in fact, it’s almost liberating. As the eldest, she feels old and dull in comparison to her more outgoing sisters, and the months spent quietly trimming hats in the family hat shop already seem to have “turned her into an old woman” anyway. Consequently, Sophie’s cursed appearance suits her better than her true one. Unable to tell anyone about the spell, she decides it’s best to simply leave the hat shop, and thus has an excuse for escaping this mundane life.
But with no real plans, Sophie ends up exhausted and alone on the hills at nightfall. When she sees Howl’s terrifying moving castle coming towards her, she figures she is probably too old for Howl to be a danger to her (he’s rumoured to prey on young girls), forces her way inside, and stubbornly instills herself as the maid. In doing so she hopes to both find a way to both break her curse and thwart Howl’s heartless plans.
What follows is a humorous, fun mystery-adventure full of well-known fairytale tropes and references. However, Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t simply based on fairytales – it happily plays with and subverts the genre’s conventions.
Jones’s tale is not as Manichaean as the fairytales it draws on. Howl is not the demonic soul-sucker or heart-chewer of young girls that he is rumoured to be, nor is the terrifying fire demon of his castle quite as terrifying as first impressions suggest. Sophie is by no means the perfectly clever, kind and efficient heroine you might expect but is more of a “one-woman force of chaos” at times, blaming her many errors on being the eldest and avoiding the difficulty of facing her own shortcomings. Jones’s characters are far more interesting and complex than normal fairytale figures: they alter when seen from different perspectives, are changed by the things that happen to them, are almost never completely good or evil. You can’t help but care about them, to wonder about their origins and how things will turn out for them, even if their roles are small or they’ve behaved badly. Thus, the characters draw you into the story while the adventurous plot keeps you engrossed.
Howl’s Moving Castle is a bookworm’s gem, an all-round lovely read that manages to be clever, charming, adventurous, and light. This is my favourite type of YA literature – just a really great story that reminds you how you came to love reading so much, or ensures that you will from now on.