***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: slightly imperfect, but ever so charming in its quirks, and just--well, totally lovable.
Where has Diana Wynne-Jones been all my life? This book makes me want to devour whatever else she wrote before her death in 2011. (I think I own Witch Week, if I dig through my shelves deeply enough, and her Tough Guide to Fantasyland was somehow our bathroom reading for a couple of months.)
What's delightful, besides everything: Wynne-Jones is one of those rare authors who remembers what it's like to be young and writes with a freedom that rivals a child's imagination. At the same time, she maturely maneuvers the reader through her story, mostly in full control the whole time. Howl's Moving Castle is one of those books that deeply engages your imagination without frantically overstimulating you--a book that you look forward to picking up every night in bed so that you can fall into another world and forget the current one for a while.
Characters. Nearly all of the main characters are fully realized. Sure, the minor ones like Fanny (Sophie's stepmother), Martha (her half-sister), and Lettie (her full sister), are less fleshed out, but they're not flat.
Setting. Like Megan Whalen Turner, it's clear that Wynne-Jones has a map in her mind while she's writing--complete with terrain and climate.
Themes. No middle-grade or young-adult book can become a classic if it isn't complex enough to have themes, and this one is chock full of 'em. For instance, fate versus self-determination: I love the way Sophie is resigned to her lot in life, as if fate has already determined its course, until the Witch's curse pushes her out of the house and makes moving forward her only option. Stuck in an old body, she loses her inhibitions and is freed to own the strength that she already possesses. There are a lot of questions of self-determination here: is it true that eldest children are doomed to dull, average lives? Meanwhile Howl's "slithering out" of obligations is his way of trying to be the master of his own path, and yet he moves inexorably toward the realization of the Witch's curse no matter what he does, almost in the same way that Greek heroes can't escape the prophecy of an oracle. The notions of home and family are powerful here, too. So many characters (Sophie, her sisters, Michael Fisher, the dog-man, the scarecrow) are essentially orphans, searching for home. So many surrogate families form: Mrs. Fairfax with Lettie, Sophie and Michael with Howl and Calcifer
I love the imagery. There are doors everywhere on the castle--they open for some people, close for others, and lead into and out of momentous stages in the characters' lives. The castle's movement is so symbolic of both Howl's restlessness and also his cowardice.
It's not perfectly polished. Here's where the quirkiness comes in. And to be honest, I didn't mind any of these flaws that much, because the ride was so joyful.
1. The pacing is off: we spend a long time building up to a fast denouement in the end, so that the details of how the plot is resolved whiz by. It turns out that a lot happened behind the scenes, and we're told about it at the end, rather than experiencing it.
2. Little tidbits are not explained, sometimes to the point of being red herrings. For instance, why does the Witch of the Waste mention that Suliman (or was it Prince Justin) went up north and she had to trick him into coming back--how does that help the story? And by having both Howl and Mrs. Pentstemmon surmise that Sophie clearly wanted to be disguised as a crone (when they couldn't break the spell on her), we were led to think that perhaps she did have some control over her appearance, when in fact the strength of the curse had to be weakened by killing the Witch before Calcifer could break it. The blue and silver suit Sophie cuts into triangles and then sews back together doesn't come to much--she and Michael (over)enlarge it, Howl dyes it black, and there's some worry on Sophie's part that he may have instead dyed the gray suit that is charmed. But we watched too much sewing and worrying, only to have nothing come of it.
3. How and when did Howl happen to buy Ben Sullivan's skull and guitar from the Witch? We're distracted by wondering.
4. How did Gaston teach the Witch of the Waste about Wales, so that she could threaten Howl's family? How did Lily Angorian get into Wales to become the school teacher? How does the Witch of the Waste's fire demon live outside of the chimney-pot mansion, whereas Calcifer is confined to the hearth of the moving castle?
5. Miss Angorian is introduced far too late to be such an important villain.
6. I had to flip back and forth between pages to follow the order of events in the abduction of Suliman and Prince Justin. It's kind of a jumble: the Witch captures Suliman and decapitates him, selling off his skull and guitar (why does she do that?), but Suliman has put all his magic into a scarecrow (which is somehow enough of "him" to steer the finding spells toward the scarecrow and not just the skull); Prince Justin buys "finding spells" from both Mrs. Fairfax and Howl (via Michael), and Fairfax seems to have been fooled by his disguise while Howl recognized him but was just happy to be left out of the search. Justin is captured by the Witch and decapitated, too. Parts from Suliman and Justin make up the body that's waiting for Howl's head, and remaining parts become Gaston/Percival/the dog-man. When Suliman is put back together again, he loves Lettie and she might have feelings for him, yet given that no part of him was Suliman's head when he was the dog-man, what exactly has she grown fond of?
7. In general it's a bit meandering, in a fun, childish way, with things tying up so quickly that it seems like Wynne-Jones wrote it by the seat of her pants, with the slimmest of outlines, and barely managed to get it all to fit together at the end, by pulling and massaging at the dialogue to "explicate" the plot.
8. Sophie's gift of "talking life into things" is supposed to be the secret behind how she can separate Calcifer from Howl's heart and still have him live. It feels a bit flimsy, though, since we haven't fully appreciated her skill until the end. Since it's important that Calcifer identified this talent when he allowed her to enter the castle, we should have been "clued in" by having Calcifer show excessive curiosity about her walking stick, rather than telling us at the very end that he had identified her magical ability. In general, one of Wynne-Jones's weaknesses seems to be not going back during the revision process and planting necessary information sooner. And while we're speaking of flimsy, the reason the Witch cursed Sophie is a bit forced: Howl had taken interest in Lettie, and the Witch was jealous, mistaking Sophie for Lettie when she visited the shop. Really? We learn later that Howl was visiting Lettie at Mrs. Fairfax's, and that Howl had never been to the hat shop before. Lettie is black-haired and beautiful, while Sophie has red-gold hair and is merely pretty. How could the Witch have made that mistake? It feels convenient, like Wynne-Jones got the plot going with the curse, and then went back to think of a reason later, but was careless about how believable she was making it.
In sum: one of the funnest books I've read in a long time. Howl, Sophie, and Calcifer are all gloriously flawed, which makes it even more delightful. This is sweet YA that feels almost middle-grade in its innocence and imagination, but is deceptively subtle and loaded with worthy themes.