DWJ ReRead · Fantasy

Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones

castleintheairAfter reading short stories for the last few DWJ posts, I was really glad to finally get to a novel again. And not just any novel – Castle in the Air is an Ingary book, the first of two companion novels to Howl’s Moving Castle. While I’m sure I’ve reread this book a few times before (unlike House of Many Ways, which I’ve only read once!) it’s been a long time since my last read, so I was definitely eager to start on it. And then I started, and… it was so much better than I remembered.

Despite being called the “sequel” to Howl’s Moving Castle, this book is really only just set in the same universe – DWJ never did direct sequels to any of her books. But this book isn’t just a story in the same world with some of the same characters; it starts in a place that is so unlike Ingary that it may make some wonder if it really is a companion novel. The setting is more Middle Eastern than European, more Arabian Nights than Cinderella. The main character is Abdullah, a carpet seller in a bazaar who would rather spend his days daydreaming of faraway castles and princesses. In typical fairy tale fashion, this soon comes true when Abdullah acquires a magic carpet that takes him to see a princess called Flower-in-the-Night.

At first Abdullah thinks that the meeting is just a pleasant dream, because it resembles his daydreams just a tad too much. As he begins to accept the truth, he also falls for the princess, right before she gets captured by a djinn, who has been going around stealing all the princesses of all the lands.

I really enjoyed the story the first time I read it – and, not knowing that it was supposed to be a sequel/companion, I was surprised and pleased when Sophie and Howl made their appearances in the story. I don’t think I remember anything more than that, and reading it again now, I find that the story’s connection to HMC is far from the most interesting thing about it, because:

(1) This is a DIANA WYNNE JONES story, in a FANTASY MIDDLE-EASTERN SETTING, what’s not to like? Many of the characters aren’t white, and in fact, have names that I hear every day, which is rare for kid!me to find in fantasy novels (or any juvenile fiction). And speaking of the names – while this story plays on tropes related to A Thousand and One Nights, it isn’t LIKE the other fiction I’ve read that uses these tropes. Recently I was reading Noel Langley’s The Tale of the Land of Green Ginger which was written as a sequel to Aladdin, and I absolutely loved it, but I couldn’t help but notice the weird names (like Rubdub Ben Thud and Tintac Ping Foo) and how it just meshed a bunch of different cultures and stereotypes into this one big exotic fantasy world. Like Arabian Nights. But Castle in the Air doesn’t do this, even though it’s set in an entirely different world. Abdullah’s family have normal names (Fatima, Hakim), and the only weirdly named person is Flower-in-the-Night, which isn’t explained, but at least acknowledged within the story. There’s a wide variety of personalities among the characters introduced, so I don’t get the feeling that any of them are stereotyped other than in the usual comic!villain/romantic!hero, fairy tale sort of way – and even those stereotypes tend to fall apart or get subverted, in typical DWJ fashion.

(2) I also enjoyed the language in this book. Oh, all the floral politeness! It’s so superb, and I love that it stems from an actual cultural thing, but exaggerated and twisted, of course. The way Abdullah barters insults with his enemies just gets increasingly hilarious as the story goes on. I read a few passages out loud to my dad, and despite not being the sort of person who got/liked fantasy, he ended up quoting those passages to his friends (sorry, dad’s friends) for a week.

(3) The character development. Abdullah starts the story as this lazy downtrodden person who would rather dream about things than go about achieving them, and then he goes on this journey in which he finds all sorts of situations that forces him to be clever and to prove himself and HE DOES EXACTLY THAT. I like him learning to challenge his own opinions on things – like his realisation that polygamy is unfair, or coming to respect strong-minded women when he had started out disliking them. And Flower-in-the-Night! She starts out as this innocent, incredibly naive person and then comes out of her shell, showing us (and Abdullah) that she is a force to be reckoned with, and I am perfectly sure that if Abdullah never arrived she would have rescued herself and all the other stolen princesses soon enough.

(4) Instalove – that turns out to be something else entirely. Abdullah and Flower-in-the-Night fall in love far too quickly for me – after a few meetings, they were already thinking of getting married. BUT. At this point in time, these two knew next to nothing about each other, and I really like that as the story goes on, Abdullah begins to respect Flower-in-the-Night for her intellect and strong mind, and only this reaffirms to him that he is now in love, rather than merely infatuated with her beauty. As the story focuses on him rather than Flower-in-the-Night, we don’t get to see her POV, but even she realises that her eagerness to marry him in the beginning may have just stemmed from her not having enough experience of the world.

(5) The other characters. I love the carpet and the genie and the soldier and the other princesses and to avoid spoilers I’ll just say that the person that Howl becomes in this book is just so very funny, that I still love Calcifer, and that Lettie is just as awesome as Sophie. I said in my last HMC post that I wished for a story about Lettie. This isn’t quite it, because Lettie only plays a small part in this story, but I love that Lettie has a part at all! I wish we could have more Lettie Hatter.

(5a) This is just a random thing: I always thought that Howl’s castle flew rather than walked, like depicted in the Ghibli film. The HMC novel never did specify how the castle moved, so either could be correct. But Howl’s castle in this book definitely floated among the clouds – I had a whole aha! moment about it, but then realised that of course, the way that the castle moved could also be one of the changes made to it after [spoilery stuff].

Now, this may be close to perfection, but it isn’t perfect. DWJ’s books sometimes would have this… I wouldn’t say fatphobic, necessarily, but she certainly seem to have issues with fatness. There are two sisters in this book that are described as fat/plump and they are just annoying, all giggly and vapid, and even though they do get a sort of happy ending with someone who loves and appreciates their fatness, it bothered me. I read somewhere that this comes from her own feelings of insecurity about her appearance, and I suppose I may not think all that much of it by itself, but when I’m rereading a lot of DWJ in one go it suddenly becomes this one glaring, uncomfortable thing. I suppose I will just have to acknowledge and accept this, and remember that DWJ also gave me characters like Sophie Hatter and Lettie Hatter and Flower-in-the-Night – and all of the princesses in this story, who are all amazing in their own right.

The next book I’ll be rereading is Black Maria, which I’ve mostly forgot other than the fact that has a LOT of women in it, so I’ll be looking forward to see how my reading of it will change.

Other thoughts:
Bunbury in the StacksCalmgrove | Here There Be Books

DWJ RE-READ no. 40 | Castle in the Air (1990)
previous story: “nad and Dan adn Quaffy”
next story: Black Maria


3 thoughts on “Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones

  1. Really enjoyed your commentary and all the insights into culture difference. I agree that Diana doesn’t really ‘do’ sequels — she seems to consciously avoid repeating plot lines in any of her parallel worlds.

    As for size issues I hadn’t noticed this before, but I’ll keep my antennae alert for this in future!


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