Book Review: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

51gKAVDyENL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_In a world where magic is ordinary, where witches and wizards live among florist and princes and bakers, Sophie Hatter is a plain, hard-working, sharp-tongued eldest of three sisters, convinced that her lot in life is one of drudgery and loneliness since she is, after all, the eldest. But then she meets Howl, the dashing young wizard who eats young girls’ hearts and hails from the mysterious and other worldly land of Wales. And then she meets the Witch of the Waste, an ancient woman of considerable beauty and power, whose penchant for nastiness will wreak havoc in more than one world, more than one life, but none more than that of Sophie Hatter.

I first encountered Howls’ Moving Castle in the film adaptation drawn by Hayao Miyazaki and his legendary Studio Ghibli. I’ve avoided the books ever since, convinced that either the book would be a bitter disappointment (it’s happened before) or – more likely – the book would so outshine the film as to overshadow and belittle my first love’s magic.

I am very happy to announce that the book is brilliant. It’s sarcastic and warm-hearted and full of beauty and horror. They two versions of this story are very, very different, of course. Apart from an opening scene which is mirrored almost perfectly between book and film, the two renditions part ways swiftly and completely on all the details, large and small alike. As he plotted the film, Miyazaki erased worlds, merged characters, and parsed in his own thematic overtones so that his imaginative creation stands quite independent of its muse. But the essence of the characters remained inviolable, as they always must. The clever, romantic spirit of the story shone through.

In short, they’re both good.

Fantastic, even.

I highly recommend book and film alike to young readers everywhere.

Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

Genly Ai, a “First Mobile” of an intergalactic collective of planets called the Ekumen, travels in his youth as a lone human emissary to Winter, a world comprised almost entirely of glaciers and a thin band of habitable valleys, blanketed in nearly constant snow, around the planet’s equator. The inhabitants of Winter, called Gethenians, live as humanoids without gender 28 days of each month, at which time their natural cycles send them into a state called Kemmer, when they manifest either as male or female, however the dynamics of their current mating relationship demand. As a full-time male, unchanging, Genly Ai is considered by the Gethenians to be a “Pervert”, only the first of an unending series of political, emotional, physiological, and cross-cultural barriers to his interplanetary mission. Genly Ai is tasked with drawing the various warring governments of Winter into the Ekumen, as a peaceable cooperative, to give and to take knowledge and power and protection. But the gap between the Gethenians and the rest of humanity is broad indeed. And Genly Ai is only one man, unadapted to the local social and political systems, to the nature of Gethenian relationships, or to the cold.

Ursula Le Guin, as I have learned far too late for my liking, is the godmother of fantasy and science fiction. If Tolkien re-established fantasy as a respected genre, Le Guin answered him with her own unique, reasonable, impassioned female voice. I don’t know how much more I can say about the Left Hand of Darkness than just to lay out its rich and delicate highlights as I’ve done above (spoiler alert, the left hand of darkness is LIGHT… how brilliant is that??). In a grand/epic/light-handed/gentle style, Madame Le Guin has crafted a masterpiece of intellectual science fiction. The characters are lovable, believable, and journey through dramatic changes of heart and mind. The world she created is stark, beautiful, deadly, and wild, never once stretching past the limits of reason, yet showing a face wholly “other” to the world in which we live. The language is meticulous, flowing, generous and easy to read.

My favorite part of this tale is the relationship that developed between the rational, masculine, prideful Genly Ai and Estraven, a Gethenian who started out as Genly’s powerful and manipulative enemy, and turned out, layer by delicate layer, to be a person wholly unexpected. By blurring the definitions of gender, Le Guin forces the reader to take every interaction between Genly and Estraven entirely at face value. The cultural divide between them makes far more distinct an impact than any question of sexual attraction or repulsion, and the qualities of each individual are attributed to each character as a whole, rather than to their natural-born  sexual identities. Brilliant. Challenging. Unique.

Ursula Le Guin is certainly one of the Crazy Greats. Madame, I salute you.

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