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Just Misses 5 Stars
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Howl's Moving Castle
Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones may well be the best-kept secret in children's and YA fantasy in this country, and that is a crying shame, especially in the light of the success of the Harry Potter boks, which are very similar to DWJ's books, but not (to my taste) as good.

Here she starts out with what almost seems a standard fairy-tale situation -- three beautiful (more or less) sisters left in the care of their (not particularly wicked) stepmother. They live in a village in a land where everyone knows what happens to each of three sisters who set out to seek their fortunes in the world, and Sophie, the eldest of the three, has no desire to experience it.

However, this is a Diana Wynne Jones novel.  One may be sure it is anything but "standard".

Thus, as one sister is apprenticed to a tavern owner, and one to a witch, Sophie stays behind in the family hat store and makes hats. Her hats soon become something of a rage, and all is going well until the local Wicked Witch drops by, says a few things that don't make any sense (at that point) and casts a spell on Sophie. One which makes her quite old and prevents her from telling anyone who she is or what's happened to her.

And so Sophie DOES set out to find her fortune (more or less), and winds up knocking on the door of the Moving Castle of the title -- which belongs to Howl the wizard.

"Heartless" Howl, who is said to charm young ladies and then eat their hearts.

Who, of course, turns out to be both everything and nothing that Sophie had expected.

And she meets Howl's apprentice and his captive fire demon, with whom she makes a bargain...

Ths is a book to read and read again and read some more, just to savour the tasty bits. You almost have to read it the second time -- which is not at all difficult to do -- because you have to go back and see how the bits you thought meant one thing actually meant something completely different.

Magic and love and adventure and betrayal and rescues and slapstick comedy and truth and lies and Just Plain Fun... All between two covers, for the price of one book.

Too bad ALL of DWJ's books aren't available in mass-market editions in this country...

(This is the library and classroom binding edition, by the way -- no other is currently available.  It's not really expensive -- less than most hardcovers, actually -- and it is durable, which you will appreciate as you begin your fourth or fifth reading...)