Witch Week Day Three: Howl’s Moving Castle (Guest Post)

Diana Wynne Jones fantasy
US Hardcover, Greenwillow

Howl’s Moving Castle (1986) is probably Diana Wynne Jones’s best-known work, thanks to the film version by Studio Ghibli. While I appreciate the film’s artistry within its own genre, I find that the Japanese-style animated images do not match my inner pictures of the story, which is rooted in the tropes and traditions of European fairy tales and nineteenth century novels, even as it slyly pokes fun at many of them. It’s also a story about how the stories we tell ourselves can become limiting when we let them define us too narrowly, and about how powerful they can be when we use them in the service of life and freedom. All this, and some of the wittiest banter this side of Beatrice and Benedick — I haven’t yet tried reading it aloud to anyone, but I think it would be great fun.

It’s a perfect place to start with Diana Wynne Jones, as our guest blogger, Jenny, explains today. Jenny writes about books and stories from history over at Reading the End. She appreciated it when Eugenides quoted Howl that one time. Welcome, Jenny!

fairy tale sister illustration
In tales like Cinderella, older sisters get a bad rap.

Howl’s Moving Castle is the book I always recommend to Diana Wynne Jones newbies. It doesn’t baffle you in the first chapter with talk of Goons or ayewards empires or spaghetti feuds like some of her books, and its world — though ultimately as weird and wonderful as any Jones ever created — is fairy-tale familiar.

Sophie Hatter is the oldest of three daughters. As the first of three, she knows that she’s doomed to a life of relative cruddiness and disappointment, if not a turn to wickedness and jealousy of her younger two sisters. But when the Witch of the Waste comes to her hatshop and ages her by sixty years, Sophie finds herself feeling free to do exactly as she wants — which she decides is to clean house for the heartless Wizard Howl.

Like so many of Diana Wynne Jones’s books, Howl’s Moving Castle is about the disconnect between the way people feel and the way they act. Sophie, we discover ultimately, is an impressively powerful witch in her own right, but her concept of herself as the doomed eldest hampers her from pursuing anything she wants. Living in the body of an old lady might limit what Sophie can do physically, but it doesn’t come close to the mental limits she imposed on herself in her life at the haberdashery.

Howl, meanwhile, is layers and layers of pretense and reality. His reputation in Sophie’s village is that of an utterly heartless wizard, a man who eats the souls of young women. But when Sophie meets him, she discovers that he’s far from what she imagined. Under a few strata of vanity and cowardice, Howl’s as powerful a wizard as he’s reputed to be; and to Sophie, to his apprentice Michael, and to his fire demon Calcifer, he’s a generous and loyal friend as well. 

Howl’s Moving Castle has all the charm and humor of the best of Diana Wynne Jones’s work, with a healthy side helping of deconstructing fairy tale tropes. If you’re new to her books, I can’t recommend a better place to start than this.

Jenny, thank you for summing up what makes this the perfect entry point to the world of DWJ. Tomorrow, we’re journeying into the mythical past of another imaginary world with The Spellcoats.

Link up your own reviews at the Witch Week Master Post

Witch Week Day Two: Power of Three (Guest Post)

Diana Wynne Jones book
US Paperback, HarperCollins

For today’s post, I wanted to focus on an example from Diana Wynne Jones’s first decade of publishing. Though perhaps not as exuberantly inventive as some of her later works, these early books already display many of her narrative strengths, and Power of Three (1976) is a particular favorite of mine. One of the things I love about this book is how elements of folklore and myth (ritual words and actions, a significant dying curse, the custom of “telling the bees,” the importance of names) are subtly woven throughout, giving a richness to the world of the Moor that makes it linger in the mind. It teaches us that language is full of magic, all the more so when we realize that how we talk — and listen — to one another can heal old grievances and open up new possibilities for the future.

Kristen of We Be Reading shares my appreciation of this overlooked gem, and I’m delighted that she agreed to offer some further thoughts about it. Kristen has been blogging about books for all ages at We Be Reading for over six years and also writes about chapter books at The Estella Society. She is also the founder of Diana Wynne Jones March, a yearly celebration of the works and fandom of DWJ. She lives in the Seattle area with her husband, son and two cats.

Power of Three is one of Diana Wynne Jones’s oldest books, first released in 1976. It is less fantastical than most of her other books, even while being rooted in magic. In the land of the Dorig, the Lyman, and the Giants, each race thinks that they are the “people” and that the others are savages, both dangerous and mean. It is the simple magic of words that give each group power, be it curses, charms, or negotiation, and they frequently use those words against each other. It is only when they use their words for friendship and forgiveness instead of enmity that all will be well in their world.

iron age artifact
Iron Age gold torc (British Museum)

The three of the title is repeated in a few different ways through the story (siblings, elements) but the most important trio is that of the three races. Ayna, Gair and Ceri live in a mound in the moors with their “people” (the main ones of the story), Gerald and Brenda are Giants who live near the moor in houses, and Halla and Hafny are Dorig who live in air-filled caverns under the water. As representatives (and children) of each of their races, we get an idea of what their lives are like and also what their group’s worldview is. In typical DWJ style, as each group identifies as “the people” and labels the other groups as “other”, she convinces you that their point of view is valid and appropriate. But as the story unfolds, both the characters and the readers get the chance to change their opinions and discover some surprising facts about each other. And, magically one might say, the children learn that things that seem like huge differences turn out to be only slight variations once they start interacting.

Though this is one of DWJ’s lesser known works, it is certainly worth reading. It doesn’t have a dreamy protagonist, a Chrestomanci or Howl, or a blatantly evil villain like Aunt Maria or Laurel. It is a more subtle tale that both reveals and redefines humanity at once — and it’s also a fun read!

Thank you, Kristen! I hope that more readers will discover this lovely book through your description. Tomorrow, we’ll be looking at what is perhaps Diana Wynne Jones’s best-known title, Howl’s Moving Castle. And don’t forget to check out the Witch Week giveaway, open now through November 5.

Link up your own reviews at the Witch Week Master Post 

Witch Week Day One: Fire and Hemlock (Guest Post)

Diana Wynne Jones book
US hardcover, Greenwillow

To kick off Witch Week, we’re taking a look at Fire and Hemlock (1984), a book in which today’s date plays a very important role. It begins (after a brief prologue) when ten-year-old Polly accidentally stumbles into an ominous Halloween funeral at a nearby manor, and makes a life-changing connection to a man named Tom Lynn; and it ends on the same date nine years later, after Polly has learned much more about Tom and the sinister significance of that event. Not a retelling, but a sort of variation on themes introduced in the ballads of “Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer,” it brilliantly but unobtrusively mines the depths of folklore and myth while telling a very modern story, one in which the act of storytelling itself is central.

I believe Fire and Hemlock to be Diana Wynne Jones’s masterpiece — and Ana, who shares my high opinion of it, is here today to share her story about how she first encountered this marvelous and multi-faceted book. Ana is a UK-based reader and blogger. She works for a large public library system and has a particular interest in reader’s development work with young people. She writes about fantasy, children’s literature, non-fiction, cult TV and more at Things Mean a Lot and also contributes to Lady Business. Welcome, Ana!

Fire and Hemlock is my favourite Diana Wynne Jones, and one of those books I know would have been hugely important to me no matter when I discovered them. But as it happens, the circumstances in which I came across it for the first time made it even more special. Fire and Hemlock was also my first Diana Wynne Jones, and although normally I’d be inclined to suggest that starting with an author’s best work is setting yourself up for future disappointment, there was no such risk in this case. First, because as much as Fire and Hemlock may be my favourite, it’s not like the rest of DWJ’s work isn’t amazing; secondly, because Jenny’s Law applies: DWJ is always better on a reread. Suddenly I knew they existed, all these marvellous books I could read and then read again; suddenly my world had grown in small but meaningful ways.
botanical illustration plant
Poison Hemlock (source: Botanical.com)

I remember the day I got my copy of Fire and Hemlock well: it was the end of the summer when I was nineteen, and I was about to start my second year of college but still living at home. My literary diet that year had consisted of copious amounts of Discworld and Sandman, two series I still love. They shaped my sensibility, and I’m immensely grateful for that — but at the time they were the limits of what I knew, and I wanted more. That summer I’d also been reading Neil Gaiman’s blog, which as I’ve mentioned before did more to raise me and form my tastes than any other single source I can think of. That was where I came across Diana Wynne Jones’s name for the first time.

When I was a teenager, my life was empty of a lot of things I almost take for granted now. This was before blogging and ease of access to endless sources of recommendations; before I had access to a public library service, let alone worked for one; before the post-Harry Potter market boom that started to make the kinds of books I wanted to read widely available in my country; before there were any sizeable bricks and mortar bookshops in the town where I lived. This was a time when even shopping for books online was a challenge — there were no magical words such as “Free Worldwide Delivery”, and not having a credit card made things incredibly difficult. (I remember, for example, that to gain access to the last few Harry Potter books without having to wait at least six months for a translation I had to ask a friend who had permission to use his parents’ credit card online to order me a copy along with his. At the time Amazon was not an increasingly evil monopoly — it was, for someone like me, something that gave me unprecedented possibilities.)
The day I bought Fire and Hemlock, I had gone with my parents to take my brother to the airport. He was, if I remember correctly, going to a scientific congress in Poland, his first big one, and all day I was filled with a vague longing for travelling adventures of my own. I hadn’t been anywhere much, not yet, and as much as I was happy for him I also wanted it to be me. My brother was going to be gone for less than a week, but I went along to the airport because I’d extracted a promise from my parents to stop at the Big Bookshop in the large city with the airport on our way back. The Big Bookshop wasn’t actually that big by most standards, but at the time it, too, represented possibilities beyond what was ordinarily within my reach. I kept hoping it would eventually surprise me with a wonderful find — and that one day, it did.
Tam Lin illustration
The White Steed, from Tam Lin by L.J. LeRolland

I found Fire and Hemlock, along with The Homeward Bounders, inside a bargain box of slightly tatty books in English. They were, I believe, €2 each — an astonishing thing in and of itself, before second-hand bookshops and library sales had become part of my world (books were expensive, easily more than €15 each, and thus had to be rationed). I recognised Diana’s name from Neil Gaiman’s blog and immediately pounced on them. And suddenly there it was: a small everyday miracle, a book I’d love more than I could possibly imagine, an unprecedented set of possibilities. There’s something about the mood of Fire and Hemlock that perfectly matches how I felt that summer. I desperately wanted my world to grow; Polly gave me that, in a way. Diana Wynne Jones’s reworking of “Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer” was, among many other things, a story that saw me. It was about a bookish girl who vaguely wanted more, who learned that magic has sharp edges, who in the end fought for what she wanted to keep. It was, beyond any doubt, a narrative centred on this girl’s experiences. That mattered to me in ways I couldn’t yet pinpoint.

Many years later, when I read DWJ’s Reflections On the Magic of Writing, I came across an essay she wrote on writing Fire and Hemlock and on her growing desire “to have a real female hero.” It was a long, convoluted journey from that summer to where I am today, aware of feminism and representation issues and of how not really seeing ourselves in stories affects how girls like me make sense of the world. I wasn’t yet read to articulate any of this back then, but I recognised something in Fire and Hemlock. In many of Diana Wynne Jones’s stories (and Ursula Le Guin’s, another discovery from around the same time), girls get to be messily, gloriously human. I needed that desperately, and I’m glad I had these stories to keep me company during the years it took me to work out why.

Thank you, Ana, for starting off our week so beautifully with your journey of discovery. If other readers have a story about your first encounter with Diana Wynne Jones, I’d love to hear it (mine is here). If you haven’t yet read her, I hope that this week you’ll find a place to start. 

Coming up tomorrow, we’ll look at an early but very accomplished book, Power of Three, which again considers how the power of words and language can be used for both good and evil. And watch for the Witch Week giveaway, which starts at midnight tonight.

Witch Week 2014: Preview and Master Post

Diana Wynne Jones blog event


…Witch Week, when there is so much magic around in the world that all sorts of peculiar things happen… — Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones

Welcome to Witch Week at the Emerald City Book Review, where for the first time I’m hosting what I hope will become an annual event celebrating our favorite fantasy books and authors. This year, we’re focusing on one of the best fantasy authors of all time, who is also the originator (as far as I know) of the term “Witch Week” — British writer Diana Wynne Jones. What will be happening?

Guest Posts: From October 31 through November 4, there will be a different guest blogger each day commenting on some favorite DWJ titles. You won’t want to miss any of these!

Readalong: On November 5, bring your thoughts about the book Witch Week to our readalong post, or just visit to see what other readers have to say.

author blog event Wikimedia
Diana Wynne Jones

Giveaway: From November 1 through 5, in sync with the Literary Blog Hop, enter a giveaway for a copy of artist Emma Jane Falconer’s unique DWJ zine, a $10 Powell’s gift certificate, and (US/Canada only) the new Tor edition of Deep Secret. You’ll get extra points for leaving a comment on any of the announcement posts, including this one!

Link up your own posts: Use the linky below, or just leave a comment or send me an email at withawhy99 [at] gmail [dot] com to let me know of any related posts you’ve done on your own blog at any time (does not have to be from this week). I’ll do a roundup on the final day of the week, November 6.

However you choose to participate, I hope you enjoy Witch Week! This is a new venture for me, so your comments and suggestions are much appreciated. Happy reading!

Witch Week starts in one week!

One week from today, I’ll be hosting Witch Week, a celebration of fantasy fiction and of one of my favorite authors, Diana Wynne Jones. If you haven’t already, please check out the announcement post and consider signing up. Then come back to ECBR on October 30 for a preview, giveaway details, and more before the fun really starts on Halloween.

The six books we’ll be focusing on during the week

I’m busy getting everything in place for next week, but in the meantime here are links to my own earlier posts about DWJ and just a few of her marvelous books:

And here are some of my favorite reviews and other musings from the lovely bloggers who will be contributing guest posts next week:

Are you joining us? What are you looking forward to during the week?

My First Diana Wynne Jones: Charmed Life

Diana Wynne Jones, Charmed Life (Greenwillow, 1977)

The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your “first” a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I’m revisiting some of these “first reads” and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.

Diana Wynne Jones Chrestomanci
The first DWJ I ever purchased

I first encountered the name of Diana Wynne Jones when at age fourteen I wrote a letter to my favorite author at the time, Robin McKinley, and received this response. I had asked her to tell me her favorite book and not to answer War and Peace (I guess I was fed up with high school required reading lists). She gave quite an extensive list of books and authors, all of which I duly checked out.

Charmed Life was the first DWJ title I found in my local bookstore, and I purchased it forthwith. Here is the first paragraph:

Cat Chant admired his sister Gwendolen. She was a witch. He admired her and he clung to her. Great changes came about in their lives and left him no one else to cling to.

Four simple, almost simplistic sentences, but as we progress further into the story we find out that there are many layers beneath the surface. The bland statement “She was a witch” turns out to have quite a different significance in Cat and Gwendolen’s world than in ours, as witchcraft is an ordinary occupation, like hairdressing or teaching music. And Cat’s admiration of and dependence on his older sister, which seem entirely natural considering that the “great changes” in their lives include the sudden death of their parents in a boating accident, turn out to be problematic. For magic may be common in Cat’s world, but it’s not always innocuous, and Gwendolen is not using her powers to benefit her young brother, but rather the opposite.

Diana Wynne Jones novel
The latest British edition

These two threads — the building of an alternate world in which magic is a part of daily life, and the theme of a young person’s need to discover his own strengths and free himself from unhelpful bonds — make a marvelous blend, a tale that is wonderfully fanciful, entertaining, and imaginative, yet grounded in serious concerns of the human heart. And the deadpan style masks a wickedly perceptive sense of humor. As I read more of Jones’s work, I found this blend in book after book, always with new twists and new worlds to explore, and always with the same sense of humor rooted not in cheap laughs but in a rare kind of wisdom.

Maybe that’s why of the authors Robin McKinley recommended, Diana Wynne Jones is the only one who became a favorite of mine, far eclipsing McKinley herself in the end. She is a writer of comedy in the true sense: a way of looking at life that, while it sees what is absurd and out of place with clear eyes, also uplifts us with the knowledge of what is noble and enduring in the human spirit. While it might seem presumptuous to compare her to the greatest writer of comedies in English, Shakespeare, in her chosen realm of children’s fantasy novels, she’s not so far from the top. She has her flaws and weak points, but at her height of creative invention, I don’t know anyone who compares to her.

While you may see Charmed Life publicized as part of the “Chrestomanci series” (along with The Magicians of Caprona, Witch Week, The Lives of Christopher Chant, Conrad’s Fate, and The Pinhoe Egg), it is not a series in the conventional sense and the order of reading is not terribly important. Charmed Life is a good place to start, though, because in it Jones introduces the character of Chrestomanci — a role rather than a name, an enchanter powerful enough to ensure that lesser magic-workers follow the rules in his world; it also introduces the important idea of “related worlds,” alternate realities that have split off when an event in history could have taken different paths. I’m not going to go into the plot more than that, because I want you to discover its surprises for yourself; and if I haven’t managed to intrigue you by now, I give up.


Five weeks from today, I’ll be hosting a celebration of Diana Wynne Jones and a read-along of another Chrestomanci book, Witch Week, from October 31 to November 6, 2014. Although Charmed Life is not one of the official featured books of that week, if you’re thinking of joining us, you might want to check it out if you haven’t already. It was where I began, and I still think it’s a good place to start. From there, you’re going to find many magical worlds to explore.

Review copy source: Personal collection

The Last Island: The Islands of Chaldea

Diana Wynne Jones (completed by Ursula Jones), The Islands of Chaldea (2014) 

Like many who love the books of Diana Wynne Jones, I was intrigued last year to learn that her sister, Ursula Jones, was completing a final manuscript left unfinished at the author’s death. How could anyone take up the mantle of one of the most fantastic fantasy writers ever? Could such an unusual collaboration work? And what would the result be like?

Now published at last, The Islands of Chaldea is revealed to be a light, charming, gentle book, in some ways atypical for Diana Wynne Jones. It doesn’t have the bite of a Witch Week, nor the dizzying inventiveness of a Hexwood, nor the emotional impact of a Fire and Hemlock. It’s a straightforward quest story, without much in the way of twists and turns. What it does have is a nicely imagined setting–the titular islands of Skarr, Bernica, Gallis, and Logra, which clearly correlate to Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England in our world, but as if seen through a magical fracturing glass. It also features some engaging characters, centering around our narrator Aileen, a Wise Woman in training who has just failed her initiation (or has she?). Along with her doughty Aunt Beck, Wise Woman of Skarr; Ivar, the pompous prince Aileen has for some reason decided she’s going to marry; and Ogo, a Logran boy everybody dismisses as useless, she is sent on a mission to lift the spell that’s cut off Logra from the other islands. To do so, the group must travel through each island, meeting dangers and unexpected helpers along the way.

In general, I found The Islands of Chaldea more cohesive and satisfying than some of Jones’s other late works, such as House of Many Ways and Enchanted Glass. The thread provided by the journey, which creates most of the interest of the story in an episodic travelogue sort of way, helped to anchor it. There was not a great deal of complexity in the relationships between the main characters or in their inner development, but still I cared for and believed in them. There were passages of real beauty and sparkling moments of humor. I found it to be a worthy way to end an outstanding writer’s career.

It seems to me that Islands might appeal to a slightly younger set of readers than DWJ’s usual audience. That’s not a bad thing, as a new generation can start to enjoy her fantastic books at an even earlier age. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that in recent years the publisher (in the US at least) has been manipulating the layout of her books to make them look more substantial, puffed up to “Potter” dimensions. Islands for example has large type, generous margins and extremely wide gaps between the lines, making it thick and chunky rather than the slender volume it would be with more normal typography. Personally I find this irritating and misleading, and I devoutly hope that at some point this trend will fizzle out and future editions be more elegantly presented.

The completion of the novel is quite seamless. Ursula Jones did an excellent job of carrying on wherever her sister left off (nobody, apparently, has yet been able to detect that exact point), and kept the tone and spirit of the book going to the end, which, if not exactly surprising, is at least respectably done. The relative simplicity of the narrative definitely made this easier for her, yet it’s still a notable achievement. In an afterword she gives an interesting account of how she took on the task and how Diana seemed to be guiding her along the way. I, for one, am grateful that she did.


Waging Peace: Power of Three

Diana Wynne Jones, Power of Three (1976)

One of the things I love about Diana Wynne Jones’s books is that they are always thoughtful without being didactic.  One never has the sense of being offered a “problem novel” with some topic-du-jour to be chewed on for one’s own good.  They always deliver a cracking good story, funny, inventive and compulsive reading.  But at the center of the tale is some real dilemma, some aspect of being human, which gives life and direction to the storytelling and makes it linger in the mind after the book is finished.

What kind of sacrifice does it take to end a pointless feud between warring peoples?  This timeless (and timely) question is the kernel of Power of Three.   Its setting is simply known as the Moor, and in a few pages Jones instantly gives us an impression of an enchanted landscape, misty, green, and full of old magic.  The people of the Moor seem to have something magical about them as well, for in the opening scene one of them, young Orban, draws down a curse upon himself when he kills a Dorig, member of an enemy race.

 As a seven-year-old, Orban’s sister Adara witnesses this act with horror but is helpless to prevent it.  It will fall to Adara’s children–“Ayna and Ceri who both had Gifts, and Gair, who thought he was ordinary”–to work out the way in which the curse can finally be lifted.  In the process they learn much more than they had ever expected about the Dorig, about the Giants (an even more hated and feared people), and about their own family’s past.

Jones’s picture of the Moor with its three uneasily cohabiting peoples is a quiet masterpiece. Inexperienced writers use pages of exposition to do what she does here simply through narrative voice, tone and dialogue.  And just as we’re settling into this marvelously convincing world, she gives it a little twist to shake things up a bit.  Everything depends on one’s perspective, as Ayna, Ceri and Gair have to learn.

In fact, the more I try to define this book, the more difficult I find it.  It’s as hard to capture its essence as to get a hold of one of the shape-shifting Dorig. Is it a world-building high fantasy?  A relationship-based family narrative?  A quest adventure?  An introspective psychological study?  A story about stories?

You’ll find a bit of each in Power of Three, woven into a seamless tale that draws you onward with Jones’ trademark humor, compassion and originality.  I can’t recommend anything more highly than that.

Originally published in 1976, Power of Three has gone through several hardback and paperback editions.  The one I have in hand now is the HarperTrophy paperback with a cover illustration that I find somewhat misleading, dominated as it is by a dragon-like countenance with fiery eyes.  The spiral designs around the edges are more satisfactory in terms of capturing the flavor of the story.  Maybe the cover artist found it as difficult as I do to pin down a definitive image. Just don’t get the impression that this is a book about flaming-eyed monsters; it’s much more about people, about how their choices and decisions, strengths and weaknesses, past and future weave together into a web as complex as Celtic knotwork.


My Favorite Witch and Wizard: Howl’s Moving Castle

Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle (Greenwillow, 1986)

Some people just don’t “get” fantasy. They are unable to comprehend the appeal of stories full of people who never existed and never could have, genealogical tables composed entirely of unpronounceable names, and endless endpaper maps portraying craggy coastlines that look like Wales, but aren’t, quite. They prefer to stay within the known world, with names which somebody, somewhere, can pronounce, and lands reliably mapped by National Geographic.

There’s plenty of great reading in the realms of realistic fiction, to be sure; but there is nothing quite like the pleasure of opening a book and stepping into a world that is purely of the imagination, yet inwardly coherent and recognizably real. Something in the human mind and spirit, something of its boundless possibilities, can perhaps best be expressed thus. Some authors, we can feel, are not so much painstakingly inventing a world full of cumbersome accoutrements, but discovering one that reveals a hidden aspect of ourselves.

Such a world is given to us by Diana Wynne Jones in Howl’s Moving Castle, one of her blithest and most enchanting novels. “In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three,” she begins, and immediately we are caught up in the realm of fairy-tale logic, where everyone knows the eldest of three is doomed to failure, should three siblings set out to seek their fortunes.

Sophie Hatter, who happens to be the eldest of three sisters, never questions this law of existence. She resigns herself to a mundane existence in the family hat shop (not even being “the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success”). Her determination to be ordinary is disrupted by a call from the wicked Witch of the Waste, who casts a very inconvenient spell on her; and by the fearsome Wizard Howl, who, in spite of his reputation for sucking out the souls of young girls, allows her in to his mysterious moving castle, and seems to be in need of some saving himself.

As Sophie puzzles through the riddle posed by witch, wizard and castle, she finds that all is not as it seems, including her assumptions about herself. Is magic all about showy transformations and fiery battles? Or is there even more power in the stories we tell ourselves?

Creating a fairy-tale pastiche that brings something new to the old tales in a satisfying way is not so easy. Jones succeeds brilliantly with a comic tone from somewhere between Charles Dickens and Terry Pratchett, starting with the chapter headings: “In which Sophie talks to hats.” “In which a Royal Wizard catches a cold.” “In which Sophie expresses her feelings with weed-killer.”

Jones is a master at creating fast-moving stories full of surprises. Unlike some of her rivals, though, she never leaves us feeling empty or cheated at the end. Her books have a quality I can only refer to as “heart,” not in any cheaply sentimental sense, but springing from shrewd and compassionate observation of human relationships. Howl and Sophie are one of my favorite examples of this. Their bickering could rival that of Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick.

‘By the way,’ Howl said, ‘Mrs. Pentstemmon will call you Mrs. Pendragon. Pendragon’s the name I go under here.’

‘Whatever for?’ said Sophie.

‘For disguise,’ said Howl. ‘Pendragon’s a lovely name, much better than Jenkins.’

‘I get by quite well with a plain name,’ Sophie said as they turned into a blessedly narrow, cool street.

‘We can’t all be Mad Hatters,’ said Howl.

How they work through to an understanding of themselves and each other is literally the “heart” of the story. (Read it to find out why.)

Once you enter the land of Ingary, I’m sure that you won’t want to leave. Fortunately, Jones has obliged us with a sequel, Castle in the Air, in which tales from the Arabian Nights are given the same lovingly irreverent treatment.

1991 Phoenix Award winner