Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
This fantasy is so off-the-wall and fun: insanely imaginative and absolutely unpredictable. There’s a castle that’s in several places at once, seven-league boots, fire demons, menacing scarecrows, and more. The protagonist, Sophie, is unusual because she spends most of the book as an old woman, thanks to a spell that aged her about 50 years. She’s also a hard worker, more talented than she knows, an oldest child who’s convinced her birth order dooms her to an uninteresting life.
There is so much going on beneath the surface of this story. We only see Sophie’s point of view, but it’s clear that Howl and his family and Miss Angorian and the Witch have a history that she doesn’t know anything about, creating a sense of mystery. Sophie’s lack of awareness extends to herself: she does magic without intending to, and the repercussions of her little spells echo and grow until the end of the story. Hemingway’s ‘iceberg principle’ is definitely at work here. When Howl takes Sophie to visit his family in modern Whales, it sent me reeling, disoriented: rather than beginning in our world and traveling to another, these characters began in their world and visited ours, showing us our own reality from the point of view of an outsider who’s used to fire demons and traveling buildings, but is still terrified of cars. I always like a good literary reference, so I particularly enjoyed the use of Donne’s “Song” as a set of directions for a spell.
This book was adapted into a great anime movie by Miyazaki, and very early in the book I could see why that adaptation worked so well. There was something about this book’s sentence-level pacing, humor, strange images, and preoccupation with cleanliness that seemed to fit the anime sensibility perfectly.