Remember when I told you about my first job, shelving books at the public library? I had an excellent boss who worked with my school schedule and treated me as a valuable member of the staff. But before that, she was adamant on one particular thing. On my first day, she handed me a copy of Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle and told me I had to read it before I was allowed to work under her.
You may have seen the excellent animated movie and it does share some of the elements, but let's set that aside for now. This is a story of a girl who, like any industrious peasant, runs afoul of a witch in her quest for her life's purpose. She is transformed into an elderly woman and has to work out how to break the spell. The only reliable source is the wizard, Howl, who has a reputation for causing trouble and also being invaluable. When she infiltrates the castle as a kind of housekeeper, she finds a fire demon who knows how to avoid a question, a young apprentice wizard who gets easily distracted and a little discouraged at times and the wizard himself, who is temperamental and eccentric. They have their own priorities and obstacles and there are often misconceptions to overcome and a secret identity for Howl that I would, in a million years, never have seen coming.
It's one of those books that refuses to fit into any category and is therefore appropriate for many ages. I am personally more fond of the sequel (because it's one of the most absurdly adorable love stories I've ever read), but the number of subplots and twists does nothing to detract from the well-paced and character-driven story.
And I will quote my favorite line: "I think we should live happily-ever-after. It should be a hair-raising experience."