Avon Van Hassel

Building Worlds and Filling Them With Magic

Happy new year, Misfits! I hope 2020 is treating you well, so far.

I started a new thing, over in the Merry Misfits Book Club on Facebook. This year, instead of picking one book to read, like traditional book clubs, or letting you choose your own books according to a theme, which I tried last year snd it didn’t work, this year, I’m picking a theme, giving you a choice between two that fit the theme, with the option to read neither and instead try one of my books.

It’s hard to say so early in the year if it’s working out any better yet. It’s certainly quieter, though I can’t tell if it’s the structure of the choices or just the madness of January. Who knows? All I know is I finished my book well ahead of when I’d planned to, and now I’m gonna get into it.

I have a confession to make- I didn’t realise that Diana Wynne Jones had written Howl’s. Like most people my age, I’m mostly familiar with the Miyazaki film based on it. I have seen it, but I know of it and that it’s well loved. What’s embarrassing about this is that I was a huge fan of Diana Wynne Jones as a kid, particularly the Chrestomanci series.

Didn’t know she’d written it, haven’t seen the film- what did I even do with my childhood?

Oh well, I’m on board now. Let’s dive into it.

Characters

Of utmost importance to me is always characters. Without compelling characters, it’s hard to care about what happens to them.

First, we have Sophie, the oldest of three sisters, and therefore cursed. Early on in the book, she is cursed to be an old woman, and that’s how she spends most of the story. Credit to Wynne Jones, she does a good job of making an elderly woman a believable and likeable protagonist. We know, of course, that Sophie is a young woman cursed with old age, but she does live and feel like an old woman, and while she hopes to be turned back, one day, it doesn’t stop her carrying on in the meantime.

Next is Howl himself. He’s kind if a slippery one to pin down, but cleverly, that’s part of his design. He’s a ‘slither-outer’ according to Sophie, always slipping away in time to avoid commitment. He’s temperamental and dramatic, a compulsive flirt, a dandy, and actually quite a decent wizard.

Michael and Calcifer are Howl’s housemates, his apprentice and indentured fire demon, respectively. They both provide a sort of bridge between Sophie and Howl, at times friends, helpers, and translators; sometimes the opposition to Sophie’s schemes.

The Witch of the Waste is perhaps the most difficult character for me. As the main antagonist, she’s spoken of in whispers and a huge amount of dread follows her, yet when we actually meet her, it’s hard to see what the fuss is about. There are a few points, I’m sorry to say, where I feel Wynne Jones could have given a little more, and the Witch of the Waste is one of them. She’s a formidable adversary, but more by reputation than by what we actually see played out before us.

Plot

The plot is pretty fun, quirky, and definitely fantastical. I have a hard time gauging the pacing and timeline because my Kindle counted every page in the book, including the 4 short stories that followed, so in my head, the story stopped at 75%!

In my recollection, though, it’s kind of hard to pin down the actual plot and what the story is ABOUT. On the one hand, we have Sophie, the young-hatmaker-turned-old-woman who wants the curse lifted, and on the other hand, we have Howl who also has a curse on him.

In my opinion, the pacing feels very strange and uneven, with a lot up front with the shop and Sophie’s sister, a lot in the middle about Howl’s ‘gadding’ (dating), a little bit about the missing prince and other wizard, Howl’s family in Wales, and the Witch of the Waste, and then a small chunk at the end where everything is tied up and everyone lives happily ever after.

There were, to me, a number of questions left unanswered, primarily how Howl came to the magical world where the story takes place, and…yeah, that whole thing. I need A Lot more info about his family and life in Wales, how he got to Ingary, how he became a wizard, etc etc. That’s just like…a huge chunk of backstory that’s completely unnecessary without explanation and honestly, to me, the most interesting part of the whole thing.

Setting

Ingary is a fun little fantasy world where magic is super commonplace and no one really fears wizards, which is pretty cool. Witch seems to be a perfectly legitimate career option, and I dig it.

The most important setting, obviously, is the moving castle. It’s a fun little piece of trickery, mostly an illusion of portals all powered by demon magic.

This is another place where I feel like my questions weren’t answered, though. The castle literally moves, like it hovers and flies. It moves so that the Witch of the Waste can’t catch Howl. But then like, it’s also static in like 4 places, so he can just open the front door onto the same sequence on locations. What’s the point of moving if you have a shopfront? Why can’t the Witch just find him there?

And again- and I can’t stress this enough- WHAT IS THE DEAL WITH WALES?

Themes

Boy, this book is really bloody Welsh, let’s start there.

The curse of three sisters, witches and wizards who aren’t scary, curses where you can’t say you’re cursed, friggin no one is who they say they are, trickstery bargains, shapeshifters, and then Howl himself, or Wizard Jankin, as he’s sometimes known, is actually Howell Jenkins from literal Wales.

My heart.

An author named Jones, I really should have seem it coming, but I didn’t, and it was a lovely surprise.


I know all of this sounds like I didn’t enjoy it. In truth, I did. I found it a charming little story with interesting ideas and characters. But I have to admit, I did find myself wondering, ‘where is this all going?’ and by the end, didn’t have much of an answer.


Anyway, gotta go find the movie, now. Maybe it’ll make more sense visually. Until next time, Misfits! Join me in the Facebook group for next month’s selection!

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