“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. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes. Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters. She was not even the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success!”

This is the marvelous beginning of Diana Wynne Jones’ work, Howl’s Moving Castle. Drawing heavily on different fairy tale tropes and delightfully subverting them, Jones relates the story of Sophie, the eldest of three sisters who gets into trouble when she angers a powerful witch and gets turned into an old woman. With little else to do, Sophie ends up working as a maid for the wizard Howl, who lives in a moving, trans-dimensional castle. There she discovers that her curse can be removed—but only if she manages to learn how to free Howl’s fire elemental from his contract to Howl so that it can release her from the curse.

Sounds simple, right?

Howl’s Moving Castle is a perfect example of how a clear and compelling voice can define and unify a story. Its winsome and light-hearted tone can make it seem more like a children’s novel, and a younger audience would certainly appreciate that, but Jones writes in a way that is just as entertaining and intriguing to older readers.

Because much of this story is built upon the compelling nature of its tone and voice, the best way to gauge your own interest in the book is to read the first couple chapters. Although the characters are intriguing and there’s some good conflict between them, and the plot has some good twists and turns, the story is largely driven by its tone and voice. If the voice doesn’t grip you, the story probably won’t engage you much. It will certainly be a decent story and have some good elements, but my guess is that it won’t be your favorite.

On the other hand, if the voice grabs you from the get-go like it did with me, you’ll probably enjoy it a fair bit. Perhaps even a lot. Few stories have a voice that’s so compelling and unique. And few use humor in such an effective way. Jones presents a unique story with Howl’s Moving Castle and a unique tone to go with it. Both of these aspects make it a story worth reading.

Discussion Questions:

What makes the voice of this novel compelling? How does Jones craft a compelling tone for this novel?

Examine the character dynamic between Howl and Sophie. Why do they struggle to get along? What resolves this conflict? From a writer’s point of view, how does their character conflict drive the story?