Diana Wynne Jones Castle in the Air
HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2000 (1990)
This, the sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle, begins in an Arabian Nights fashion, which seems light years away from the European land of Ingary. Genies in bottles and flying carpets have nothing to do with a Welsh wizard and a fire demon called Calcifer powering the moving castle, surely? And many of the other distinctive characters in that famous first instalment must be unrelated to the eastern city of Zanzib in the Sultanates of Rashpuht, mustn’t they?
But appearances are deceiving in this parallel world where magic can and does happen. The impecunious young carpet-seller Abdullah, so much given to flowery flattery that it becomes mildly irritating, sets his heart on the almost unobtainable Flower-in-the-Night, thereby seemingly setting in motion a series of events that changes his life forever. Unbeknown to him (and to us, as readers) those events have already been kickstarted before the story opens, meaning that the commonplaces of Eastern romances are interwoven with Jones’ verbal comedy and confused identities to create a fabric whose intricate overall pattern is only revealed at the end when we can stand back and admire the whole. And just at the point where we’ve forgotten that this is a story in a series about the wizard Howl and Sophie, they and their castle turn up in the most unexpected way.
At first I was uncomfortable with the effusive language used by Abdullah, and of course we are sensitive to cultural stereotypes, so is there a sense that Jones’ novel can be regarded as somehow racist or pandering to religious prejudice? No, I think not. What Jones is sending up is the language and stereotypes of the Arabian Nights which, certainly in the form of those early translations (whether original or modulated through the early 18th-century French translation) has its own charm or idiosyncrasies, depending on how you look at it. And, remember, this is an alternate world fantasy, with no mention at all of religion and therefore in no more inciting religious bigotry.
Not as famous and well-loved as the first of the series, I was won over by the clever plotting which expertly tied up all the loose ends in the final pages. Unlike some of Jones’ more ‘difficult’ novels where the storyline is obscure and the ending seems fudged, Castle in the Air draws you along like a needle pulling thread to its final satisfying conclusion. This must have been as much fun to write as it is to read, while Tim Stevens’ accomplished line drawings heading each chapter in this edition clarified and complemented the author’s text perfectly. And, just as this sequel, while sharing some characters with its predecessor, still manages to cover very different themes, so does the final volume in this sequence, House of Many Ways.
Review first published November 2012, here revised and with additions