Reading Level: Children’s
Size: 336 pages
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Release Date: August 7, 2001
Stand Alone or Series: Stand Alone
Source: Audiobook through Audible.com
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
I have had this book to read forever and was so excited to finally get around to reading it. I watched the movie a long time ago and enjoyed it, but wanted more depth to that interesting story. This was a well done fantasy book, that had an old time fairy tale feel to it. My main complaint that the ending was a bit rushed. There are two sequels to this book: Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways.
I listened to this on audiobook and the audiobook was very well done. The narrator has an English accent which fits this fairy tale type of story perfectly and did a wonderful job with the character voices.
Sophie is the eldest of three children in a hat-makers shop. As such, she feels that she is destine to lead a boring and uneventful life. Things change when she runs afoul of the Witch of the Waste while selling the Witch a hat. The Witch turns Sophie into an old woman. Sophie leave the hat shop and journeys to Howl’s Castle in hope that he can break the spell on her and return her to her youthful self.
This was a well done children’s book with a fairy tale feel to it. The world is a typical olden time fantasy world with Kings and magic and castles. I loved the idea of Howl’s floating castle and the Wicked Witch of the west. This is a magical story full of lessons on life, love, and happiness.
The characters did leave a bit to be desired for me though. Sophie’s personality matches that of a cranky old woman perfectly, even before she is a cranky old woman. I think that is part of the irony in her being turned into a cranky old woman. I didn’t really enjoy her all that much. The huge decision she makes to go Howl’s castle she blames on being in shock from the transformation and to be honest she doesn’t do much but be incredibly stubborn for large portions of the book. She also is very caustic and rude to Howl throughout the whole book. She never lets him get a word in edgewise and never lets him actually explain anything. She continually calls Howl a “slitherer-outer”, which seems hypocritical to me since Sophie is constantly trying the slither out of her own live and out of making any decisions.
I like Howl’s character better but he was still hard to engage with. Howl is a first rate womanizer and (Sophie is right, he is a slitherer-outer) tries to get out of having any responsibilities at all. He pretends to be mysterious and hard-hearted but it is extremely apparent that he is not any of those things. He was a very stereotypical bachelor type character (he has a messy house, eat poorly, and is always after women).
The best character of the bunch is Calcifier, the fire demon that lives in Howl’s fireplace. He is much more fascinating than either Sophie or Howl, and I would have liked to read more about him.
Sophie’s sisters are also delightful characters. They are full of mischief and add more life to the story than Sophie ever does. I especially enjoyed Sophie’s sister’s magic teacher, she was a funny and engaging character.
Behind all of the Sophie/Howl disagreements there is a larger part to the plot. The King wants Howl to rescue his brother from the Witch of the Waste, of course HOwl is doing his best not to get involved. This part of the story was largely in the background. To be honest this portion of the story isn’t really dealt with until very late in the book. The way it wraps up is creative and interesting, but also very rushed and a bit confusing. This would have been better if Jones had taken a bit more time to explain and wrap up the mystery behind the Witch of the Waste and the King’s brother.
So to be honest, while I enjoyed this cute little fairy tale story, it didn’t awe me or blow me away. The characters left something to be desired, the pacing was slow in the beginning and rushed at the ending, also things get a bit confusing at the end and could have used some better explanation.
In addition to the above there are some mysteries around the “other world” Howl goes to that are never well explained. The “romance” between Howl and Sophie (if you can even call it that) felt forced, awkward, and rushed as well.
Overall this was a decent fairy tale like story. I enjoyed the world and Howl’s magical castle and the whimsical tone to the story. I also enjoyed Calcifer the fire demon and his sharp wit. I thought Howl and Sophie were probably the least interesting characters in the book. I also thought the pacing was off and that there were a lot of things left unanswered. After writing this review I guess I felt a bit let down by this book, my expectations were really high though….so that’s kind of my own fault. I most likely will not be reading the sequels to this book. There are just too many other wonderful middle grade fantasy stories out there to read.