I don’t know how many times I’ve read this now, but it’s probably my favourite of Diana Wynne Jones’ work. I actually saw the Studio Ghibli adaptation first: it’s very different in some ways, but it still captures some of the ideas and tone. The thing I really loved, though, coming to the book after the film, was discovering all the Welsh background. The ‘saucepan song’, Howl’s family, his Welsh Rugby shirt, even some of the things he says — “there’s a welcome in the valleys”! As well as the Welsh background, there’s just a lot more in the book: Sophie’s sisters, her aunt Fanny, a different view of Howl…
And Sophie is a fun protagonist: capable, pretty, not stuck up, capable of making mistakes, admitting she’s wrong, and being really ratty about it. She’s not perfect, by any means — which is fortunate, because neither is Howl. Both of them have a lot to put up with, in fact! And yet it doesn’t go too far, either: most people have something redeeming about them. For a while we think of Sophie’s Aunt Fanny as rather exploitative and unfair; a wicked stepmother, in fact. But there’s another side to the story, and Jones makes sure we know it.
Then of course there’s the tone. It’s light, silly, and yet you come to care about the characters easily because they make you smile, and because sometimes you can see right through them to their real motivations. Like people, really. I love all the references to traditional folk tale structures, too, like Sophie thinking she’ll never come to much because she’s the eldest of three.