Howl’s Moving Castle is one of my favorite books ever, and I was over the moon when I found out Diana Wynne Jones had written a lesser-known sequel (or at least companion book.) As much as I enjoyed the way things came together at the end of the first book, I wanted more of Sophie’s fierceness and ability to cut through society’s nonsense, and I wanted more of Howl’s vanity and snark and never quite succeeding at being a truly terrible person.
Unfortunately, Castle in the Air mostly follows a new cast of characters before converging with more familiar figures toward the end, so I didn’t get quite so much of what I had hoped. Even more unfortunately, the new protagonist is a young man in a city called Zanzib, a vaguely Middle Eastern setting that seems sourced almost solely from stereotypes and heavily edited English translations of One Thousand and One Nights. In all fairness, it was published in 1990 by a white British author, but in some ways it feels like a product of an even earlier time (or maybe not; Aladdin hit theaters two years later.) I mean, just look at a summary of how it all kicks off: Abdullah is a daydreaming marketplace carpet-seller who has a chance encounter with a sequestered princess. Said princess wins his heart and then is promptly kidnapped by a djinn, so Abdullah flees his troubles at home and sets out to find her.
To be fair, I adored both Andrew Lang’s The Arabian Nights Entertainment and Aladdin in my younger days and still maintain a nostalgic soft spot for them, and I probably would have happily accepted Castle in the Air at that age too, but going into it as an adult made me uncomfortable. Many of the characters speak with Jones’ signature British dry wit, but beyond that, there does not seem to be much effort to elevate Zanzib or its residents above tired tropes of overbearing families who accept and encourage superstition, polygamy, and arranged marriages (to cousins, no less); tyrannical and misogynistic sultans; and sheltered princesses with vaguely Orientalist names.
On top of it just being cringe-worthy in an age where backwards Middle Eastern stereotypes are both more pervasive and more loudly condemned, the tropes also mean the story just isn’t as good. Howl’s Moving Castle drew me in immediately because it acknowledged the cliches of the European fairy tale and used them to inform characters’ decisions before upending them in creative and delightful ways. The specificity and familiarity of the reveal of Howl’s origin added an extra twist and grounded the fantasy even as it hopped locations and turned up the sorcery. (Personally, I felt the removal of that twist also hurt the Ghibli movie adaptation, but that’s a fight for another time.)
In the end, we finally get a bit of Howl and a bit of Sophie and a wonderful little bicker-fest between the two of them, but I just found myself wishing the rest of the book had been like that too.