Before Hayao Miyazaki made Howl's Moving Castle into a feature length animated film in 2006 (2004 if you saw it in Japan), it was a book written by Diana Wynne Jones in 1986. Due to the inherent difficulties of creating an animated film, Miyazaki greatly abridged and adjusted the plot of the novel for his movie. I happened to enjoy both film and novel but after reading the book I realized that the plot is extremely different in the novel--enough that the book and movie become completely different viewing experiences.
Anyway, that's all I'm going to say about the movie. On to the discussion of the book:
Sophie lives "in the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility exist." In other words, all of the traditional fairy tale stories are real. Not so bad, except that Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three sisters, which everyone knows means Sophie is doomed to failure should she ever set out to seek her fortunes. Sophie is resigned to her fate--living obscurely, and less than successfully, working in the family hat shop. Except that this is not a traditional fairy tale and events soon intervene to set Sophie on a very unexpected course indeed for an eldest daughter.
It all starts in the hat shop after some interesting things begin to happen when Sophie talks to the hats she trims. Interesting enough to attract the attention of the dangerous Witch of the Waste. When her encounter with the Witch of the Waste leaves Sophie cursed in the body of an old woman, she has no choice but to go out and seek her fortune in hopes of breaking the curse (even if she is an eldest daughter).
Along the way, Sophie comes upon a mysterious moving castle that has taken up in the hill's of Ingary. The castle belongs to Wizard Howl "who was known to amuse himself by collection young girls and sucking the souls from them. Or some people said he ate their hearts." Either way, he was not anyone Sophie expected to ever meet let alone move in with. Until she does. Adventure ensues as Sophie tries to break the curse and help Howl with his own uniquely magical problems.
In terms of fantasy novels, Howl's Moving Castle is one of my favorites. The world Jones creates is fully realized without ever getting boring or limiting the reader's imagination. The tone of her narrative is also spot on. Readers of Jane Austen's novels or the "Sorcery and Cecelia" series will notice a similar narrative voice. Although this novel is largely timeless, the prose has a charmingly Victorian tone--taking its time to arrive at the action, the better to familiarize readers with the characters involved and show the readers just how fantastic they (and the story) really are.
I also adore this story because it is romantic, thrilling, and completely absorbing. Even at 329 pages, the novel is far too short. Happily, Diana Wynne Jones follows up Howl's Moving Castle with Castle in the Air (1990) and House of Many Ways (2008).