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Review by Jessie Powell
Sophie, the eldest of three daughters, lives in the smallish town of Market Chipping with her step-mother and her two sisters. After the girls' father dies, Fanny, the step-mother, is unable to raise three daughters on a hatmakers salary. She finds good apprenticeships for Sophie's two younger sisters and keeps Sophie to help in the hat shop. The sisters, Lettie and Martha, promptly switch places, since Lettie would rather be a witch, and Martha would rather be a baker. Discontented with her life, Sophie is nonetheless a marvellous hatmaker, whose hats seem to bestow upon their wearers exactly the things Sophie wishes when she's making them.
In the meantime, a castle has taken up residence on the outskirts of town. It moves willy-nilly from one place to another and is said to be inhabited by a wizard who "was known to amuse himself by collecting young girls and sucking the souls from them. Or some people said he ate their hearts.". Young girls are advised to never go out alone lest they be captured and treated to all manner of horrors.
Then, Sophie enrages the witch of the west with her incredible skill at making hats. The witch descends upon Sophie and casts a curse which turns Sophie into an old woman. Worse, Sophie is cursed to be physically unable to tell anybody she's under a curse. The horror of the curse breaks Sophie from her appalling state of mousy discontent. She can't bear to think of her family seeing her in this state, and so runs away.
Old and feeble, she struggles even in the simple act of walking away from town. By the time evening descends, she has only covered a short distance, and she knows she won't be able to travel as far away as another village. In this state, she comes upon the moving castle. Age gives her the courage she lacked as a hatmakers' apprentice, and she not only forces her way into the castle, but also invites herself to stay for the night. The wizard himself isn't home, but his apprentice, Michael, is quite unable to deal with this irascible old woman. Sophie falls asleep in front of the fire, thinking how the flames quite resemble a face.
When she wakens, she tosses a log on the fire, and realises that the flames more than resemble a face, they ARE a face. The fire in this castle is actually controlled by a fire demon named Calcifer. Like Sophie, Calcifer is cursed, and they make a pact, each to discover the nature of the other's curse and break it. This, of course, requires Sophie to find a pretext for staying at the castle.
She declares herself housekeeper and by the time the wizard Howl arrives, he finds her furiously cleaning cobwebs out of dusty corners and scrubbing the dust into oblivion. He doesn't invite her to stay, but then, he doesn't exactly throw her out, either, leaving her free to find out exactly how Calcifer is bound to the castle.
Sophie's entanglements with Calcifer, Howl, and Michael, and her quest to break her curse form the backbone of this howlingly funny book. Howl's moving castle is worth reading again and again. (And again and again.)
"It was not a dream!" said Abdullah.
"It was real!"
Fate has destined them for each other but a
bad-tempered genie, a hideous djinn, and various villanous bandits
fling Abdullah on to a roller coaster of adventures.
Lots of writers show fantastic imagination and lots of writers produce unputdownable books, but DWJ consistently manages to combine both qualities. House of Many Ways is in many of its ways a trademark DWJ novel: a helter-skelter ride from one great fantastic situation to another; some hilarious scenes; interesting characters, and a satisfactory round-up of loose ends at the finale.
The many fans of magician Howl will also be particularly delighted to see guest appearances from him, Sophie, Calcifer and baby Morgan, although most readers will do a double-take when they realise how Howl has disguised himself.
House of Many Ways sees young Charmain, who has been brought up by parents who have such a narrow view of what is "nice and respectable" that she can do nothing except read her beloved books, volunteered to look after her Great Uncle William's house while he is away. Since he is a magician, his house and its contents are quite unusual, from expanding laundry bags to books that choose their readers, and from doorways and passages that can lead to many different places, to a strange, magical stray dog.
Despite her restrictive upbringing Charmain tries to cope, helped by the dog Waif and by another young visitor, the confident Peter who has an unfortunately poor sense of direction. Her world view has to widen rather rapidly to take in the many strange experiences and people she meets, but it seems likely her new wider scope might spread to her parents, too.
In most DWJ books, inner journeys are mirrored in outer situations. So, Charmain also finds herself involved in her country, High Norland's problems. Why is the royal treasury rapidly emptying? Why is the crown prince so horrible? And above all, what were the plans of the truly monstrous lubbock that Charmain narrowly escaped from?
I strongly suspect that the princess of High Norland was one of those kidnapped by the djinn in Castle in the Air. In any event, she is friends with Sophie, and when Sophie is called in to try and answer some of these questions, Wizard Howl comes along for the ride, bringing his own brand of magical or mischievous chaos with him.
There's also standoffish elves and grumpy kobolds, lots of suspiciously purple-looking people, and great-looking cakes.
All-in-all, its another great fun DWJ read. Every chapter brings something new; it all seems completely crazy until at the end it all seems to make sense, and Howl is just as obnoxious as ever.