Howl’s Moving Castle (1996), by Diana Wynne Jones

I suppose it isn’t surprising that when I searched for the cover art for this book, that most of what appeared were images from Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 anime version. I first saw the film when I was attending the annual conference for the Children’s Literature Association in Normal, Illinois, in 2008. Opinions were mixed, but the general consensus was that, while it wasn’t really the same as the novel, it was a good movie. Diana Wynne Jones herself was pleased with it—“It was wonderful. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone before who thinks like I do. He saw my books from the inside out.”—so I feel justified in liking the movie in a completely different way from the book.

Simplification of novels in adaptation to film is often necessary; Miyazaki does much more than that. Other reviewers have gone through the differences more meticulously, so I’ll just note that, rereading the novel, I was sufficiently pleased to see the little consistencies in character and incidentals—such as the bakery employee moving the boxes aside and poking his head through to call to Lettie, or Sophie cooking the breakfast on Calcifer’s head—that I could forgive the more drastic changes in plot, such as the simplification of the political intrigue and the introduction of the entire war theme.

I recall a quotation from Wynne Jones (that of course I can no longer find) I which she said, admiringly, in response to an objection about the movie: “It’s Hayao Mizazaki: of course there are airships; he has to have airships.” She approves, too, of Miyazaki’s architectural aesthetics: “What I like is the way that Miyazaki has translated [the castle] into a thing of fantasy.” There is a quotation from Ursula K. LeGuin to Goro Miyazaki (Hayao’s son, but that is another story) about his version of The Tales of Earthsea that in my mind I attribute sometimes to Diana Wynne Jones, as it parallels her overall impression of Howls’ Moving Castle: “It is not my book; it is your movie. It is a good movie.

But on to the actual novel, which contains far more magic than does the movie. The opening lines immerse the reader in a fairy-tale world:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to win your fortunes. (9)

Wynne Jones then goes on to delineate all the ways in which Sophie both does and does not conform to fairy-tale tropes. As the novel progresses, we watch as those tropes are subverted and avoided through the will of the characters. The metaphor is unavoidable: in both Ingary and our world (Howl, it turns out, is really from Wales), it is your choices and strength of character that really control your destiny, not the expectation of the world around you. Sophie’s sisters Lettie and Martha are the first examples: sent by their mother to apprentice to a bakery and a witch respectively, the girls learn enough magic to switch places undetected; for Lettie, the middle child, is the adventurous one and Martha, the youngest and therefore assumed to be destined for great things, only wants to find a husband and have babies. Taking their futures into their own hands, both end up happy.

Granted it is not so easy for Sophie, but as she is our protagonist, that is to be expected. Accosted by Wizard Howl for a moment on the streets, Sophie earns the wrath of the Witch of the Waste, how curses her with premature old-age. But Sophie is a “hale old woman” (55), and moves steadily on with her life, remarking on her new perspective as an old person. The Howl she met in the streets, intimidatingly older, “is only a child in his twenties” (58) to Old Sophie, his “new cleaning lady” (59). Her artificial maturity gives her a confidence to explore who she really is: “It was odd, as a girl Sophie would have shrivelled in embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman, she did not mind what she did or said. She found that a great relief” (66).

As Sophie settles in to her life in the castle, she becomes slowly more aware of her own magical powers—something the reader was made aware of earlier, and Howl recognizes immediately. The politics of magic and government are twisted together, and Sophie seems barely to keep up with the machinations of Howl’s professional life, not to mention the fall-out from his previous romantic entanglements. Her growing belief in herself helps her to stand up to the forces that threaten to overwhelm her—Howl included—and that strength is ultimately key in creating a stable life for both Howl and herself. Unlike in the movie, Sophie has no illusions about Howl’s true nature; there is no scene where they fly off in an airship together. Sophie’s pragmatic acceptance of their affection for each other, despite their faults, is far more satisfying and believable, as befits a fairy tale with an underlying agenda of overthrowing fairy tale tropes.

Bone, Fog, Ash & Star (2014), by Catherine Egan

Once again, I have reviewed this title simultaneously for Resource Links Magazine and this blog. I just didn’t want to wait any longer to have my opinion out there. The final book in such an excellent trilogy deserves better treatment than the length of time I have put this off already…

Egan - BoneI have been really almost frightened to read Bone, Fog, Ash & Star, the last of Catherine Egan’s The Last Days of Tian Di trilogy: what if it didn’t live up to the expectations set by the first two books? What if the author lets me down? What if there are loose ends, or manipulations to tie up those ends, or gratuitous character alterations to accommodate necessary plot developments… what if… what if… The more I like a series (or in this case trilogy), the more invested I am in the author’s narrative success: hence the trauma. I need not have worried.

Egan opens her second book, The Unmaking (2013), with the unlikely (but explicable) scene of ninja-Eliza in total stealth mode. The opening of Bone, Fog, Ash & Star similarly causes the reader pause: Eliza is flying through the air on the back of a great bird: “And then she let go” (1). We hope it is a dream sequence, but after the ninja, we are not so sure… The great bird turns out to be Eliza’s shape-shifting friend, Charlie, in gryphon form; Eliza is trying to see if her dreams are true, and she herself can transform into a raven. And so the reader is brought back, how ever long away, into the world of Tian Di and all that has happened to Eliza, the Shang Sorceress, in the previous few years (and two books). Just as we become comfortably reacquainted with Eliza and her world, inexplicably, Egan kills off one of her central characters: Charlie has become a target of the Thanatosi, a breed of assassin creature who, once commanded, will not rest until their prey is dead. The emotional impact on the reader parallels Eliza’s response (not surprisingly), and we read with bated breath as Eliza travels into Death’s domain and pulls Charlie back into the world of the living.

The social and emotional relationships between the characters lie at the heart of the plot, but are not the plot. The Mancers (in charge of magic in Di Shang) recognize Eliza’s affection for Charlie, but want to marry her to a Mancer, thus not diluting her bloodline further (Eliza herself is of mixed race due to her mother’s headstrong actions in this regard). So to stop the Thanatosi, Eliza must return to the Citadel of the Mancers… which sets the plot in motion.

Ultimately, the only thing that might stop the Thanatosi are the gathering of the four Gehemmis—bone, fog, ash, and star—gifts of the Ancients that are prophesized to bestow ultimate power on the one who rejoins them. So Eliza’s quest begins: she is off after the Gehemmis; Charlie and their friend Nell are taken to the Realm of the Faeries, where he might be safe; Eliza’s only Mancer ally, Foss, is banished with her from the Citadel and is slowly dying, away from the source of his life-energy. The three plots are woven together like a loose but intricately patterned fabric: we are following one narrative thread with great interest when all of a sudden we reach the end of that pattern, and find ourselves at the beginning of another. Egan has honed this technique admirably to leave readers gripped by all three plots at once: regardless of which we are following at the moment, we do not feel abandoned by the author, nor do we lose sight of the other characters’ positions. Tricky narrative weaving, well executed.

Far more than the first two novels of the trilogy, Bone, Fog, Ash & Star alludes subtly to the eschatology of the mythological underworld: in the ferryman who conveys travellers between Di Shang and Tian Xia; in the raging river that forms the barrier between Tian Di and the underworld; in the power relations that develop between the worlds and those who live in them. These power structures feed into the political machinations that Eliza has become increasingly embroiled in as the trilogy progresses; now, in the Last Days of Tian Di, she is forced to make very mature decisions… but she is still only a 17-year-old girl. The conflict between her child-like desired to save those she loves and the more altruistic space she should inhabit as the Shang Sorceress ultimately lies at the heart of the novel. There are intimations of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy in both the imagery and the conclusion to Egan’s trilogy, but without Pullman’s rather negative perspective on belief, free will, and human agency. I wept copiously at the end of Pullman’s trilogy, but I also felt betrayed, as if the author were presenting a vision of humanity that was missing some of what I know to be true. The Last Days if Tian Di is written for a younger audience, but even as an adult reader, I feel that the choices Eliza makes reveal a real human response to her world, at both the individual and the global level. Well done, Ms. Egan. What’s next?

The Last Days of Tian Di: Book 1, Shade & Sorceress (2012) & Book 2, The Unmaking (2013), by Catherine Egan: Resource Links review

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.3.

Egan-ShadeIn Shade & Sorceress, we are introduced to Eliza Tok: taken from her family and friends, powerless, confused, and yet nominally a sorceress; in The Unmaking, Eliza learns and grows into her powers and truly becomes who she was born to be: the Shang Sorceress.

I struggled with reviewing Shade and Sorceress, as there is so much in it to discuss: elements that continue in The Unmaking. I didn’t mention how engaging the characters’ are, nor how distinctive Egan has made their voices, their characteristics, their cultures. I didn’t mention the deep complexity of the world Egan has created: I hoped that was inherent in my comments about the confusion Eliza faces—never knowing who to trust, who not to, where to go, what to do. In The Unmaking, the complexities deepen: we are shown more of Eliza’s world and begin to understand—like Eliza—the political machinations that underlie the delicate balance between the two worlds, Tian Xia and Di Shang. The mandate of the Shang Sorceress is to guard the Crossings, to prevent creatures from Tian Xia from crossing into our world and reeking havoc. In the beginning, though, Eliza cannot even command the Boatman, and has to pay—like any other semi-magical creature—to cross into Tian Xia; by the end of the novel,

Eliza commanded the Boatman and he came.
“Lah,’ said Charlie, impressed, ‘How about that!” (262)

Egan-UnmakingThe Unmaking opens with the unlikely scene of a ninja-Eliza kidnapping a corrupt official, and handing him over to the Mancers for trial. Readers will wonder where Egan is leading us (and thinking, “astray?”), but the ethos of the story has not really changed: Di Shang is still a world where magic and human knowledge coexist, and Eliza is still a rebellious young girl, not sure where her loyalties truly lie. The choices she makes, though, have become more imperative, for the Xia Sorceress, Nia, has escaped the prison the Mancers had constructed, and is seeking her revenge. Like Shade & Sorceress, The Unmaking defies distillation. Its complexities—narrative and psychological—position it firmly in the realm of fantasy series such as Patricia A. McKillip’s Riddle of Stars, or Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising: the powers that Eliza commands are not simple spells and trickery—even in the sophisticated way the Mancers use them—but a deeper magic, rooted in the Earth, that Eliza’s dual ethnicity has access to. As the daughter of her Shang Socceress mother and her Sorma father, Eliza has more power—and more innate wisdom—than any Shang Sorceress before her. In the Last Days of Tian Di, Eliza is a shining light of humanity melded with power; I can’t wait to see where her strength and compassion lead her. Ms. Egan: please write quickly.

The Last Days of Tian Di: The Unmaking, by Catherine Egan (Book 2, 2013)

Last month I posted a review of Ann Walsh’s Whatever, which I had received for review for Resource Links magazine. Last week I contacted the magazine to ask if I could send them two unsolicited reviews for the first two books of Catherine Egan’s The Last Days of Tian Di trilogy. Like Whatever–but of course in a completely different subgenre–these two books deserve to be widely publicized.

The Last Days of Tian Di: The Unmaking

Egan-UnmakingIn Shade & Sorceress, we are introduced to Eliza Tok: taken from her family and friends, powerless, confused, and yet nominally a sorceress; in The Unmaking, Eliza learns and grows into her powers and truly becomes who she was born to be: the Shang Sorceress.

I struggled with reviewing Shade and Sorceress, as there is so much in it to discuss: elements that continue in The Unmaking. I didn’t mention how engaging the characters are, nor how distinctive Egan has made their voices, their characteristics, their cultures. I didn’t mention the deep complexity of the world Egan has created: I hoped that was inherent in my comments about the confusion Eliza faces—never knowing who to trust, who not to, where to go, what to do. In The Unmaking, the complexities deepen: we are shown more of Eliza’s world and begin to understand—like Eliza—the political machinations that underlie the delicate balance between the two worlds, Tian Xia and Di Shang. The mandate of the Shang Sorceress is to guard the Crossings, to prevent creatures from Tian Xia from crossing into our world and reeking havoc. In the beginning, though, Eliza cannot even command the Boatman, and has to pay—like any other semi-magical creature—to cross into Tian Xia; by the end of the novel,

Eliza commanded the Boatman and he came.
“Lah,’ said Charlie, impressed, ‘How about that!” (262)

The Unmaking opens with the unlikely scene of a ninja-Eliza kidnapping a corrupt official, and handing him over to the Mancers for trial. Readers will wonder where Egan is leading us (and thinking, “astray?”), but the ethos of the story has not really changed: Di Shang is still a world where magic and human knowledge coexist, and Eliza is still a rebellious young girl, not sure where her loyalties truly lie. The choices she makes, though, have become more imperative, for the Xia Sorceress, Nia, has escaped the prison the Mancers had constructed, and is seeking her revenge. Like Shade & Sorceress, The Unmaking defies distillation. Its complexities—narrative and psychological—position it firmly in the realm of fantasy series such as Patricia A. McKillip’s Riddle of Stars, or Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising: the powers that Eliza commands are not simple spells and trickery—even in the sophisticated way the Mancers use them—but a deeper magic, rooted in the Earth, that Eliza’s dual ethnicity has access to. As the daughter of her Shang Sorceress mother and her Sorma father, Eliza has more power—and more innate wisdom—than any Shang Sorceress before her. In the Last Days of Tian Di, Eliza is a shining light of humanity melded with power; I can’t wait to see where her strength and compassion lead her. Ms. Egan: please write quickly.