Most of the story takes place in the fictional kingdom of Ingary, whose technology belongs to an indeterminate past century. Judging from a brief sojourn to modern (for 1986), unheard-of Wales, it's apparently in another dimension rather than another time. The citizens have English names, unless that's just a translation convention. More importantly, the existence of magic is common knowledge, but for whatever reason, few practice it.
In that world, it seems sensible enough to believe a superstition that the eldest of three daughters is automatically cursed: She must stick with the family business, because "seeking her fortune" could only bring misfortune. That is the attitude of our protagonist, late teen Sophie Hatter the hatter, trying to convince herself not to envy the apprenticeships her stepmother assigns to Martha and Lettie.
Then a seemingly worse curse befalls her: The infamous Witch of the Wastes advances Sophie's physical age a good 60 years or so, without obvious provocation. Not wishing to face her family like this, especially since the spell also prevents her from telling about it to anyone who doesn't already know, Sophie heads out for Wizard Howl, hoping he'll help despite the rumor that he eats young women's hearts or something.
At the castle, she meets the source of Howl's power, a living flame self-described as Calcifer the fire demon. He recognizes the curse on her and offers to break it only if she breaks the no-longer-wanted pact between him and Howl -- which he can't talk about either, so she'll have to figure it out herself. When Howl and his teen apprentice Michael arrive, Sophie devises an excuse to spend as much time snooping about as she needs: She'll be his maid, for no pay beyond plain room and board.
Howl does not welcome this service at all (much as he needs it), but neither does he kick her out. Perhaps this has to do with bigger things on his mind, like the king wanting him to look for a prince lost in the Wastes. Since things apparently didn't turn out well for the last wizard on that quest -- and since the Witch wants Howl's heart for her own power -- Howl would rather devote his energy to evasive tactics. In the adventures that follow, Sophie learns a lot, both bad and good, about Howl...and herself....
Pretty long summary, huh? I just didn't feel that the book jacket did it justice. There are so many twists and details that when I finished, I did something I'd never done before: I went right back to the beginning. And despite my plan to skim and then stop when I had assembled all the pieces, I read the whole thing again. That's one reason so much time has elapsed since my last book review.
Obviously, I wouldn't do that if I didn't like the book a lot. It's like no other story I can think of. Yes, it feels a little unfocused at times, or perhaps too focused on the wrong things, but it captures my interest on multiple levels.
One level, of course, is in the imagination that goes into the magical premises. Calcifer alone is pretty intriguing. The castle has a door that opens to different areas at the turn of a dial. Household implements include seven-league boots, which take you half that distance with each stride; and cloaks that change your appearance dramatically. Not all premises make sense even on second read, but who cares? They're fun.
Another level is in the personalities and relationships of the major characters. According to an interview at the back of my edition, Jones was astonished at how many young female readers have crushed on Howl, seeing as Sophie find him insufferable more often than enjoyable. He obsessively courts young women, spending hours at a time perfecting his attractiveness, but loses interest the moment they fall for him (hence the rumors); if they send anyone to his door after that, he sneaks out the back and lets Michael and Calcifer handle it. He lies easily. He spends money like there's no tomorrow. He lives in utter squalor. He often seems to forget about the people he lives with. He can be pretty childish for 27, and magical tantrums are not pretty.
Nevertheless, Sophie can't deny his charisma and, more than that, generosity. And ultimately patience, considering she's no angel herself, even putting aside her effrontery in invading his castle like that. For a focal character, she can be pretty wretched and hard to understand at times, possibly due to the curse combo addling her. I do feel for her for the most part, as does Howl. It doesn't take long to see where they're headed, even if they themselves don't see it for the longest time.
(It strikes me now that a 27-year-old and a maybe 18-year-old don't make a promising pair. Well, at least they don't kid themselves that it's going to be easy. Perhaps more problematic is when Sophie pretends to be Howl's mother in public, looking more like his grandma, tho nobody raises an eyebrow.)
The final level is in the general writing quality. While some revelations seem to fly by too fast, I like the descriptions as they come. Some moments are funny, especially concerning Calcifer and the "In Which" chapter titles.
The other reason for my delay in writing this is that I felt a need to watch the movie again to compare. Jones herself noted some key differences but didn't seem to mind, as screen adaptations do that sort of thing a lot. She loved the visuals, and I have to agree that Miyazaki was the likeliest choice to direct something so intoxicating. But would I like it as much anymore?
As I'd hoped, I had forgotten enough to make it feel fairly fresh. In some ways, it sticks closer to the book than I thought; in others, it's further. The tech level is basically steampunk. Sophie's family plays a significantly smaller role. The hopping scarecrow she discovers is no longer a source of terror, just a quirky sidekick. Michael has been replaced with prepubescent Markl. Howl is no womanizer, usually keeps a remarkably level head, and shows little evidence of his claimed cowardice. The king orders him not to look for the prince (who's still missing) but to join in an ill-explained war under the influence of a new character who seems to combine traits of several book characters. The Witch of the Waste stops being the main antagonist about halfway thru, and the heroes sympathize with her more. The oddly intelligent dog has a completely different role. And Sophie's aptitude for magic is even subtler if at all present.
I had predicted a number of differences before I ever picked up the book. Sophie and Howl are both nobler on screen. They have a lot less trouble getting along and falling in love (to a degree not evident in most Miyazaki pics). Calcifer acts less demonic and probably a little cuter, as befits the voice of Billy "Mike Wazowski" Crystal in the Disney dub. Things get extra unfaithful toward the end, upping the schmaltz and vapidity.
In truth, the aspects I don't like now are almost entirely the same aspects I didn't like in 2005. And the film does add a few positive traits, such as Sophie's vacillating age and Howl's enviably gorgeous, if cluttered, bedroom. It helped fill in some parts that I had trouble picturing otherwise. So no, I haven't fallen out of love with it. Nor do I regret my two consecutive reads of the book. The media complement each other nicely.
My current book is Terry Goodkind's Temple of the Winds. I didn't expect to start the Sword of Truth series on the fourth volume, but my sister and brother-in-law found this and the next two. Goodkind must be doing something right, because these tomes are huge.