Cut You Like The Tiny Slivers Of Glass

Howl’s Moving Castle — Diana Wynne Jones
Howl, book 1


1986’s Howl’s Moving Castle is the first book in Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl series.

Life in Ingary is a faerie tale affair, as its inhabitants well know. How wonderful for Martha Hatter! As the youngest of three sisters, she is surely destined for fame, wealth, and a perfect marriage.

It is considerably less wonderful for Sophie Hatter, the oldest of the three sisters. Everyone knows the oldest child will have at best an unremarkable life — if they are lucky. The oldest might be more likely to suffer a grim fate, which will serve to cast the youngest’s destiny in a brighter light. They might even, as Sophie does, find themselves the target of a curse that by rights should have been cast on a younger sister.

Convinced that middle sister Lettie is stealing the Wizard Howl from her, but unclear which Hatter sister is which, the Witch of the Waste casts a curse on Sophie. Gone, the little mouse of a girl who toiled for free in her stepmother’s hat shop. Arise, an elderly lady the Wizard Howl could not possibly see as a romantic partner. To make sure Sophie won’t escape too easily, the curse prevents her from mentioning to anyone who is unaware of it.

There’s nothing for it but for Sophie to track down the Wizard Howl to see if he can break the curse. Howl is not at home when Sophie arrives, which makes it easier for Sophie to reinvent herself as Howl’s new and entirely unrequested cleaning lady. No long a resentful young woman, the aged Sophie discovers she has personal resources hitherto unsuspected. Which will be needed.

Howl has a grim reputation. He is a powerful wizard who is also a young, vain man. He courts woman after woman, discarding each in turn, because he is too self-centered for sincere love. (But he also takes in an orphan and allows a seemingly elderly lady to install herself in his home.) Above all, Howl dislikes responsibility and direct confrontation, which is why he lives in a moving castle. Easy to avoid disgruntled exes if they cannot find you.

Just how close Howl and the Witch were when he pursued her is unclear. What is clear is that the Witch still wants Howl. Howl can run all he wants but the Witch is a very determined woman. Howl can delay the final reckoning. He cannot prevent it.

His cleaning woman might.


Readers may be interested to know that Wales, visited in passing in this novel, is a real place just like Ontario, New Zealand, and Brigadoon. It has its own colourful history that’s not entirely about being invaded by the f*ing Anglo-Normans. Sometimes it’s the Irish.

The inhabitants of Ingary are correct about the power of narrative only to the extent that their expectations make it true. Someone convinced they are destined for greatness is more likely to venture out to seek their fortune. Those convinced that they can only be a grim example are hardly going to waste their time competing for unwinnable prizes. But they could be wrong.

Indeed, much of what happens in the book is that we (and some of the luckier characters) learn to see past first impressions. Not only is Howl not the monster he pretends to be1, but Sophie’s stepmother is neither quite as kindly as she seems at first nor quite as exploitative as Sophie later believes her to be. Sophie is not the little mouse she thinks she is. The Witch really is just as spiteful and murderous as she appears to be … but she has her reasons.

This is a fine novel with which to start my Diana Wynne Jones project, for which I had better have a name by Friday. Do not expect me to review the sequels to this book, (Yes, it has sequels, which surprised me, as Sophie’s story seems complete). Since I will only be reading 12 DWJ books, of which there are many, I would do better to try for a diverse sampling.

Howl’s Moving Castle is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: He is, however, a great big jerk who is only interested in courting women until they say yes, at which point he drops them.


  • Danny Sichel

    "only interested in courting women until they say yes, at which point he drops them."

    one might wonder if 'courting' is perhaps a euphemism.

  • Marcus Rowland

    I really wish that David Bowie had played Howl, he would have been the perfect actor for it. Just think Labyrinth with an even more vain male protagonist. The Studio Gibli version unfortunately doesn't really do the story justice.

  • Evan

    Whatever you do, do NOT omit <i>Charmed Life</i> from your DWJ project!

  • May I ask, how are you going to decide which 12 books (apart from not the sequels to Howl)?

  • James Davis Nicoll

    One part the list of suggestions people gave me and one part which ones I can actually track down.

  • Brian has these paperbacks available. If you are picking another eleven titles then (imho) the ones I think you should definitely include as among her most important books are:
    My favourites include The Homeward Bounders and The Spellcoats, but he doesn't have those available at the moment.

    He also has:
    and also Everard's Ride in hardback, but although it is interesting I don't think it is central.

    I think you are in for a treat, and will follow with interest.

  • Elaine

    I hope Homeward Bounders makes your list. It punched all the buttons for me: gaming, Greek Mythology, and a bittersweet ending.

    • James Davis Nicoll

  • Alicia Smith

    All those an Power of Three! Power of Three! Don't forget Power of Three!

  • Harimad

    If you are still open to recommendations:
    - Charmed Life (a good exemplar of the Chrestomanci series)
    - The Power of Three (stand-alone)
    - The Spellcoats, or Cart & Cwidder if you want to do the first, and more popular, in the Dalemark series. I think Spellcoats is easily the better book - more interesting plot, better rounded-out characters, fewer cardboard circumstances, more sophisticated environment.

  • I'm voting for the The Magicians of Caprona or the Dalemark Quartet (okay, that's cheating, because there's four books in the series, but they are very different from her other work)

  • PC

    They are only sequels in that they are set in the same world and Sophie, Howl et al appear briefly.

  • Chris Bell

    Howl's callous behaviour towards women is because he is heartless, so it isn't entirely his fault.

  • M

    Major spoiler warning below for prospective readers

    Hello, I've been looking through your reviews and I'm going to go read Cart and Cwidder again because it sounds more exciting than I remember. You've made a bit of a mistake here though, I don't know how: the Witch of the Waste knows who Sophie is! The bit about 'setting [herself] up in competition' isn't about Howl courting anyone, but because Sophie's magic on the hats was getting renown! The Witch was killing off magic users like Ben Suliman and Howl and Sophie was her next target.

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