CASTLE IN THE AIR by Diana Wynne Jones
HarperTrophy, 2001, 298 pages, 0-06-447345-7, Mass Market Paperback, $6.99
I don’t know where other readers found their start with Diana Wynne Jones, but I don’t mind admitting that I started with Howl’s Moving Castle. Actually, I started with the Miyazaki film of the same title, then I hunted around for the book when I discovered there was original source material. I was absolutely blown away by how good the Howl’s Moving Castle novel was, and after that I made it a point to browse through Diana Wynne Jones’s catalogue of work.
Now, there’s an obvious reason why I would choose to read Castle in the Air–the same reason why I plan to read House of Many Ways in a few weeks. Because it takes place in the same universe as Howl’s Moving Castle. More than that, it brings back Howl and Sophie and Calcifer. No, they’re not the main focus of the story, but they factor in, and I’m happy to read about them in any capacity. The mistake the publisher continues to make, though, is in putting the word “sequel” on the front of these books (something that I noticed, later, was changed to “companion” on the newer editions of Castle in the Air). This is misleading since Castle in the Air is far from a sequel–it just happens to be in the same universe and features a few familiar faces in peripheral roles.
In reality, this novel is about Abdullah the carpet merchant who, after buying a magical flying carpet, finds himself in the flower garden of his dreams looking at the beautiful princess Flower-in-the-Night (for whom he must update his dreams so that they include a woman just like her). He intends to steal her away from her father and marry her, but, before he does, she is snatched away by a powerful djinn. Abdullah then finds himself the main suspect in Flower-in-the-Night’s disappearance, and he must do his best to escape or die. What follows is his quest to find and rescue the woman he loves, which leads him to a country called Ingary. . . .
The first half of this book is very much an Arabian Nights-style story. With magic carpets, powerful djinn, uncooperative genies, desert princesses, and bandits, there are a lot of recognizable elements. Think Aladdin–only with a really cranky genie–and you get the idea. The second half, on the other hand, takes a totally different turn in the quest. Which is to say, Abdullah starts getting somewhere. There are a lot of obstacles that he must overcome in the beginning, and for the most part they slow him down. They also slow the story down. A lot.
While I hate to say it, it’s true. I liked the overall idea of this story, but it spent a lot of time being boring. The prose wasn’t as lively as I had come to expect of Jones, and all of the plodding through the desert made for drowsy times. It isn’t until Abdullah meets the Strangian soldier that things really get moving. From there, it was difficult to put the book down, and by the end of the novel you’re in a spider’s web of interconnected plot points and personal ties. But first you have to get there.
But once you do, it’s a lot of fun. The stolen princesses are a hoot, and the djinn have unexpected self-esteem issues. Finding out where Flower-in-the-Night has been taken is something of a surprise, as is the true nature of the black cat that can grow bigger at will.
The best part, in my opinion, was the climax of the story, at which point you discover that everything . . . and I do mean pretty much everything . . . that you’ve been reading about has a purpose. As wrap ups go, it’s pretty impressive, and I’m glad I stuck with it just for that.
Readers who have read and enjoyed Diana Wynne Jones’s other work–or who are fans of Sophie and Howl–may well like Castle in the Air, especially toward the end. I’m not sure how accessible it might be to new readers, however, particularly since the first half of the book moves so slowly. My suggestion would be to give it a shot and see if it’s to your taste.