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Sophie Hatter is a sensible young woman who utterly lacks any confidence in herself. She works in a hat store owned by her late father, where she feels resigned to spend the rest of her days, until one day an encounter with the dashing and handsome young wizard Howl marks her as a target of the Witch of the Waste, a jilted former lover of Howl's. Mistaking Sophie for her sister Lettie, The Witch places a curse on Sophie which turns her into an old woman. After this transformation, Sophie exiles herself from her hometown and happens to become a house cleaner for Howl - who lives inside a moving castle with magic doors leading all over the country. The castle is powered by the grumpy fire demon, Calcifer, who is linked to Howl in a mysterious magical contract. Calcifer, however, has grown to resent Howl over the years and agrees to free Sophie from her curse if she can, in turn, somehow void his own agreement with Howl.
As Sophie and Howl grow closer, it becomes more and more apparent that all is not as it seems. Indeed, the main theme of the book is that everything in the story is actually something else, having been transformed by magic.
The book kicked off a series. The first sequel, Castle in the Air (not to be confused with Miyazaki's other film, Laputa: Laputa: Castle in the Sky), continues the story from the point of view of a new character, in the midst of a war, wherein most of the characters he runs across are characters from the first book, only (a) disguised or otherwise not what they once were and/or (b) described in such a way as to make the reader unaware of the connection (seeing as the sequel's hero doesn't know any of them, he can't very well recognize them for us, either). It uses tropes and settings from the Arabian Nights.
The second sequel, titled House of Many Ways, is set a couple of years after its predecessor. Again, a new protagonist is introduced as the book follows the story of Charmain, a sheltered bookworm who is assigned to caretake a cottage for her Great Uncle (who is also the Royal Wizard) but soon discovers the cottage is a magical labyrinth in disguise. The cast of the first book are given more involved roles than their cameo appearances in Castle in the Air, but still stay secondary to Charmain's plot.
- Agent Peacock: Girly boy badass Howl is this.
- Aw, Look — They Really Do Love Each Other: Howl and Sophie bicker and argue like there's no tomorrow. But when it really comes down to it, they really do love each other. In fact, the reason why they argue so much is because they want to, as it keeps them on their toes.
- In fact, Michael pointed out to Sophie the day that Howl, as vain and obsessed with beauty that he was, forgets to take 2 hours every morning to dress up and make himself look handsome would be the day that he's truly in love. So when Sophie was kidnapped by the Witch of the Waste, Howl arrives to her castle, disheveled and ungroomed.
- Base on Wheels: The titular castle.
- Beta Couple: Oh boy. In the first book we have Michael and Martha (as well as Lettie and Ben at the end), to the main couple Howl and Sophie. Then in the second book it's main couple Abdullah and Flower in the Night, with Beta Couple place going to Justin and Beatrice, with some of the couples from the original also making appearances. Then we have Odd Couple Peter and Charmain in the third book and some glimpses of Howl and Sophie.
- Bizarrchitecture: The castle again.
- Companion Cube: Sophie discovers she has the magical ability to bring things to life if she treats them like Companion Cubes.
- The Dandy: Howl.
- Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Ingary is roughly equivalent to England. Rajpuht, in Castle in the Air is somewhere between Arabian, Persian, and Indian. High Norland, in which House of Many Ways is set, is quite Switzerland-like--with the rolling, snowy mountains and meadows, the cuckoo clocks/sleds, tiny impish creatures, and all.
- Gentleman Snarker: As in everything else, Howl has to be classy even when he's being condescending.
- Gentleman Wizard: Howl
- Heroes Want Redheads: Sophie, at least in her normal form, has flowing red hair.
- The Illegible: Howl. In both Howl's Moving Castle and House of Many Ways there are references to his handwriting being frankly horrible - both Sophie and Charmain wonder to themselves if he uses a pen or a poker when he's writing.
- Large Ham: Howl.
- Mama Bear: Sophie in Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways. Do NOT harm Morgan Jenkins if you know what's good for you.
- Howl also has a Papa Wolf moment in House of Many Ways when Prince Ludovic threatens Morgan, leading Howl to punch him in the face. Twice.
- The Messiah: Sophie
- Morality Pet: Whatever other flaws he may have, Howl absolutely loves his sister's children, they in kind. In the sequels, this extends to his own son Morgan, suggesting Howl may have a Friend to All Children streak.
- No Accounting for Taste: This is generally how outsiders view Howl and Sophie's relationship in every book after the first. In reality, they're Happily Married, since they actually enjoy fighting with each other. It keeps them both on their toes.
- Noble Demon: Calcifer
- Opposites Attract
- Portal Door
- Put on a Bus: Michael, in every book after the first.
- Castle In the Air Explains that Michael, and a new unnamed apprentice, were sent away when Howl found out that the moving castle was in danger.
- Redheaded Hero: Sophie, when she's not cursed into looking like an old woman or in disguise as a cat.
- Rule of Cool: Let's face it - moving castles are cool. It's justified in the first book as a means of eluding the Witch, but Sophie and Howl still have the moving castle at the very end of the third book.
- Standard Hero Reward: Spoofed. Princess Valerie of Ingary is still a small child, and her father wouldn't dream of marrying her off until she's much older — which proves embarrassing for several people over the course of the series who expect the Standard Reward without bothering to find out how old she is first.
- Technicolor Fire: Calcifer, as demonstrated in the above cover
- Theory of Narrative Causality: Mentioned repeatedly.
- Trickster Archetype: Howl
- Beautiful All Along: Sophie never saw herself as pretty. It takes a curse and the building up of her confidence to make her see that she is.
- She knew she was pretty, but her sisters were prettier.
- But for Me It Was Tuesday: Subverted. Sophie thinks she can just walk by the Witch of the Waste because the witch has probably cursed so many people that she won't even remember Sophie. It doesn't work.
- Can't Live Without You: If Calcifer dies, so does Howl.
- Chekhov's Gun: Pretty much every object, character and throwaway line of dialogue, in the first book at least.
- Cool Gate: The door to the castle.
- Cursed with Awesome: subverted- Sophie's curse is genuinely terrible but it is only as an old woman that she is finally able to feel confident in herself.
- Deal with the Devil
- Everyone Join the Party: Sort of happens in the book, when an amazing number of secondary characters independently show up right before the climax; subverted in that they don't know they're supposed to be reinforcements (really - that was Howl's plan) and so are bewilderedly commentating on the fight and swapping stories rather than really helping - afterward, this continues and serves as an Info Dump about what's really been going on for the entire book.
- First Girl Wins: Gender-flipped with Sophie and Howl, Howl being the first guy that Sophie meets. Howl on the other hand has met plenty of other girls before Sophie.
- Freaky Friday Flip: Martha and Lettie
- Handsome Lech: Howl, before he falls for Sophie.
- Subverted: Howl falls for Sophie the first time he sees her, but he maintains the appearance of being a Handsome Lech while he's actually just trying to find out more about Sophie from her sister.
- Ladykiller in Love: Howl, of course.
- Literal Change of Heart: Howl's character improves a little bit as a result of having his heart returned to him.
- Men Can't Keep House: Before Sophie, Howl's castle was amazingly dirty.
- My Hair Came Out Green: Howl gets pink hair (after a an ugly mix of colours) when Sophie messes with his hair products.
- Nice Hat: Given Sophie's job, it's only natural a few would show up.
- One Degree of Separation: In the book, Sophie eventually learns that every single encounter she's had after the first few pages and everything that's happened to her has been directly caused by Howl's actions. This only reason this isn't Chessmastering is that while Howl had the prerequisite knowledge, he's actually been pretty much winging it instead.
- The Paolo: Miss Angorian, in the book only.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: The King of Ingary.
- Scary Scarecrows: Played straight in the book; inverted in the film.
- Shapeshifter Showdown: When the Witch of the Waste finds Howl in Porthaven.
- Shout-Out: The first book has lots of them, to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The main antagonist is the Witch of the Waste, on her journey to the castle Sophie meets a scarecrow and a dog, and Howl himself is a wizard who deliberately cultivates an image of being a lot more terrible and powerful than he really is, was born in our world, and - referencing a different character entirely - is literally heartless.
- Shrouded in Myth: Many are the mysterious and frightening rumours that circulate about the Wizard Howl. It turns out that he started most of them himself.
- She Cleans Up Nicely: Sophie is in denial of this until the end.
- Threat Backfire
Witch of the Waste: "...she told me 'over my dead body'. So I took her at her word."
- Tired of Running
- Trash of the Titans
- Wrong Genre Savvy: The root of Sophie's major problems is that she thinks she is genre savvy enough to know that being the eldest of three children she will be doomed to a boring life without glamour or success. As such she completely fails to see that she is an extremely potent witch with the ability to ensure a happy ending for herself as well as everyone around her.
- Youngest Child Wins: Lampshaded and subverted.