Traditional fairy stories are in many ways the world’s first young adult fiction and the idea for ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ came, according to Diana Wynne Jones, from a desire to explore a world where fairy stories (with their associated magical artefacts such as seven-league boots) could be realities. This particular story focuses on three sisters – a common trope in the genre – who are the daughters of a shopkeeper (a hatter, as it happens) in a quiet provincial town. Because this is a world in which fairy stories come true, there are certain expectations which the book sets up in its first few pages as to the sisters’ fates: Sophie, the eldest, will – of course – inherit the shop, while the youngest will set off to successfully seek her fortune. Add to that a stepmother (Sophie’s mother died when she was two) and not merely one but two malevolent magical beings in the countryside beyond the town (the wicked Witch of the Waste and the mysterious Wizard Howl) plus a missing prince and you have a classic fairy story.
Except, not quite. Fairy stories – precisely because they are so traditional – can also be seen as rather cliché; the tropes and characters they describe having become such a part of our collective consciousness that something different must be done with them in order to show an author’s originality. Fortunately for the reader of ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’, Diana Wynne Jones is an exceptionally original author. Even as they are being outlined at the start of the story, the ‘fairy story’ expectations are also being explicitly undermined. The third daughter, Martha, is the child of Sophie’s stepmother and, as the book itself says, ‘this ought to have made Sophie and Lettie [the middle daughter] into Ugly Sisters, but in fact all three girls grew up very pretty indeed’. Even though this is a land of magic and fairy stories, therefore, the reader is alerted to the fact that this story should not be expected to follow established patterns. It is a story with many twists and turns, where people are rarely entirely who they appear to be and the expectations of Sophie (our heroine) are rarely fulfilled in quite the way she imagines.
Yet it is precisely in the treatment of those expectations (frequently – and perhaps a little too much so at times – with a blast of dramatic irony) that the novel’s strength lies. It is a story about the way in which one’s growth as a person is driven by one’s perspective. Sophie spends much of the novel under a curse, doomed to be old before her time; a simple change that leads to much self-discovery. This, after all, is what all young adult writing (including fairy stories) is about: the developing self-awareness of a person as they discover their potential. And in ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’, it all takes place within the richly imaginative series of worlds created by Diana Wynne Jones. Readers of her other works will be familiar with the sheer exciting beauty of the multiverse within which she wrote (as, in a different way, will be those who have watched the Studio Ghibli adaptation of ‘Howl’) and it is ultimately this which must serve as the book’s greatest recommendation. It allows you to escape into a beautiful and crazy world and all fairy stories should do that.