Posset of the Day: Linden Tea
I have been woefully lax at posting anything. I even missed my traditional 'Year in Review' post. That is ridiculous considering last year was one of my best ever... in fact I think it *was* my best ever. I hope to do a nice, sentimental overview sometime before this year is half over, but for now I need to get these reviews down while the books are still reasonably fresh in my mind. (Not that HMC won't be fresh again... if EVER a book cried out for rereading it's that one!)
I had been wanting to read this book for awhile. Unfortunately there is currently no eBook so it went onto the long list of classics I would love to read if only there was an eBook of it.(There was one, but the reviews seem to indicate that there were many errors in it. Perhaps they will fix it and put it back someday.) Not too long ago a few fanarts popped up on my DeviantArt watch list and that brought back my desire to read the book. Finally it seemed like the ONLY book I wanted to read, and if I dragged around the hardcover Omen Machine with a booklight and read/walked with it, I could handle a much lighter paperback. I'm really glad I did!
My first (and last) Diana Wynne Jones book was 'Dogsbody' which I read several years ago. I found it good in some ways, and utterly frustrating in others. Sirius was a great character, but the 'heroine' Kathleen was a flat, dull drip and the ending drove me nuts. It wasn't the fatal intense dislike I felt for the first 'Recluse' book or Kushiel's Dart, but it didn't inspire a lot of confidence, either.
There were definitely no characters that could be remotely described as 'flat, dull drips' here. Sophie begins the book with a inferiority complex and a sense of fatalism. She believes, living in a world where fairytale tropes are the norm, that since she is the eldest of three daughters she is doomed to a life of failure. When her father dies and her (not so wicked) stepmother arranges for her two sisters (Lettie and Martha)to be apprenticed out to a baker and a witch respectively, Sophie is resigned to her fate to inherit her father's hat shop. She knows that going out to seek her fortune would only result in failure, after all.
For awhile Sophie is reasonably content to decorate and talk to the hats, imagining what sort of person will buy them. 'You will need to marry money.' 'You are young as a spring leaf!' and that sort of thing. The hats' buyers seem to mysteriously end up doing or being just what Sophie told the hats they would be. Demand for Sophie's hats is high, and she ends up spending day and night working on her hats while wishing she could go out and seek her fortune.
On May Day she decides to close up shop and visit her sister Lettie at the baker's. It has been so long since she was out of the hat shop that all the hustle and bustle of the town at festival is terrifying for her. Along the way she meets a dashing and noble man wearing a fancy blue and silver suit with elaborate golden hair. Sophie is terrified of him, but he seems to feel pity for her and offers to take her to her sister. She runs away from him. Such was the first meeting of Sophie and the rogue Wizard Howl known to steal away young women and eat their hearts.
Sophie becomes more dissatisfied with her lot as time passes, but still thinks it would be pointless to try to do anything else until the evil Witch of the Waste comes into her shop. The witch doesn't like it that Sophie is enchanting her hats, among other things, and so casts a curse on Sophie to become a ninety-year-old woman. Sophie is in a state of shock and wanders out of the shop and, having nothing left to lose, goes off to seek her fortune.
In the hills above the town she rescues a dog, finds a stick to use as a cane, and sets a scarecrow to rights. (All of which prove to be very important later.) At last, exhausted in her elderly body, she finds Howl's castle drifting about. Desiring nothing more than a chair and a fire, she occosts the castle. She is certain she has nothing to fear from Howl since she is now an old lady, and hopes that he might do something about her curse.
Howl isn't in, so she occosts his kindly teenaged apprentice Michael and the fire demon Calcifer instead. Calcifer sees that Sophie is cursed and makes a deal with her that if she can break his contract with Howl, he will remove her curse. She agrees and announces to Howl that she is to be his new cleaning lady. He takes this (mostly) in stride and doesn't so much as let her stay as he just doesn't tell her to leave.
As Howl's 'cleaning lady' she becomes a terror with a broom and mop, though Howl firmly keeps her out of his personal space. She still manages to move his multitude of bath product potions, causing him to use the wrong spell and make his hair color to go awry. (The absolute, utter horror!!!) That was one of the most humorous bits in the book, and Sophie's observations are both funny and very wise. (I can actually quite relate to Howl for his two hours in the bathroom. And really, if someone made my haircolor go awry before a concert I might call down shadows, too.)
This is a character driven tale in the purest sense. Howl IS quite a 'slitherer-outer' as Sophie calls him, he is incredibly vain, is an absolute drama queen, hates to be pinned down to anything, fickle, willful, careless, selfish, is quite capable of exploiting others for his own gain and is by his own admission a coward. Except, really, he isn't a coward when it comes down to it, and isn't really all that selfish, either. I think that sometimes he hides in his faults for fear of showing his nobler side which is far more vulnerable to being hurt. To have people depending on him is to risk failing them. To allow others to see him as he truly is is to risk rejection. As we see when he is courting a girl who does not immediately fall for his charms, he truly HATES to be rejected. It is safer to be considered wicked. No one expects anything from a wicked wizard. When Howl IS brave, or caring, or noble, he tends to do it without fanfare. That is contradictory to his drama queen tendencies and it is those contradictions that make him so fascinating.
Sophie hides in her fatalistic view of being the eldest of three. She often takes her unhappiness with herself out on others and can have a hard time seeing things from the other person's point of view, though she does usually come around in time. Sophie can easily be as willful and stubborn as Howl in her own way. For a long time she doesn't see just how much she is disrupting the lives of the castle's denizens. Her hilarious jealous rage with the weed killer was more violent than Howl's equally amusing green slime attack. Of course at the end both of them learn quite a lot from each other and are better people for it. This one of the oddest and most delightful love stories I have ever read. It is not a love based on physical infatuation nor perceived perfection of character. They know well each other's long list of faults and love each other anyway.
The plot, next to the the development of these two fascinating and flawed individuals is rather weak. The witch for all her sinister acts did not seem very hard to dispatch in the end. There are some very clever twists with the scarecrow and dog, but really it is all just window dressing on the story of Howl and Sophie.
There are so many ways to look at Howl and his motivations, that I know future rereads will have me seeing things quite differently. I would love to write him just to discover more about him. I wish I could have had the opportunity to go to a con with Diana Wynne Jones as a guest. Now there would have been a kaffeeklatsch I would have LOVED to attend!
The Castle in the Air suffers from following HMC. It also suffers from having a MUCH weaker hero. Abdullah struck me as a doof without much in the way of character or personality. (More like Kathleen in Dogsbody, actually.) He is good for an occasional chuckle, but not much more. There are some good moments once one figures out where Howl, Sophie and Calcifer are. It is also a good indication of just how much power Howl really has. Otherwise it is just a very mild, readable little book to pass time on a walk, but nothing much more.
The House of Many Ways is a little stronger and more complex. It's heroine Charmain is no Howl in the complexity department, but I found her more relatable and enjoyable to read than Abdullah. The house is an interesting place to explore and the plot, while mild, is engaging. Beautiful 'Twinkle' Howl is a hoot. One imagines that Sophie often feels like she has two little boys to take care of!
I read the manga last week and watched the Howl's Moving Castle movie on the treadmill at Boskone. The movie has a COMPLETELY different plot than the book. The characters are also VERY different. It is really only an adaptation in the loosest sense. Movie!Howl is a beautiful creature who cares very much for his appearance and has his hair potions and a sense of the dramatic, but despite saying he is a coward, he never really acts like one. He is also a whole lot milder, sweeter and his motivations are always noble. Even the underlying reason for his hair tantrum is due to his not wanting to be involved with the war and fear of his curse, not because a girl isn't interested enough in him. That is not necessarily always the case with book!Howl. Sophie is a unconfident young girl who doesn't think she is pretty who turns into a kindly grandmother who thinks she was never pretty enough. She never seems to notice that her curse comes and goes, nor is it explained why her hair stays silver. I'd have liked to see her stronger. I admired Howl's nobility and his struggle with his curse. He is not the same character as the book, but he is certainly charming. Christian Bale gives Howl a very sensuous voice. I just loved to hear him talk. Calcifer was pretty good, actually. A lot better than I thought he'd be. He was probably the most 'in character' for the book. The Witch of The Waste was a complete disappointment. She is supposed to be EVIL, not... whatever she was. I didn't like the 'Turnip Head' plot at the end. It just seemed unnecessary and a loose end if there was never to be a sequel.
Sometimes the book bits seemed an odd fit in the movie. As if they came from a different story, which indeed they did. It was fun, though.
Now I need to find another book to read!