It's been a long while since I read this, but I remembered absolutely loving it. My memories were correct. In fact, I read every book by Diana Wynne Jones I could get my hands on growing up. I've finally gotten a chance to reread this, and I'm glad I choose the audiobook format. Jenny Sterlin was brilliant. She utilizes her voice distinctly for the varied characters. She even makes a distinction between Old Sophie and New Sophie very well. I recommend listening to the audio if you have a chance.
Howl is a real character. He's what you would rightly call an amiable rogue. Howl's imperfections are very much part of his charm. I liked how Sophie spent most of the book annoyed with Howl, but you could tell that she had fallen in love with him. She was awful jealous."I think she doth protest too much." Howl will admit that he's a coward, and he's extremely vain. He's not above manipulating people. But Sophie is a perfect match for him. She doesn't put up with his bull, but at the same time, she's good for him and both Michael, his apprentice.
I love Sophie. She's an awesome character. What pluck despite her timidity and low self-esteem. I liked how as she was under the old age spell, she came into her own and it's understandable. She was freed from the fears and restrictions that had ruled her life as the Oldest Daughter. The older you get, the less you have to lose, and the more you are willing to call it like it is, but also you realize that life is valuable and each moment could be your last. Sophie comes into her own and realizes that she has a unique ability to create magic of her own.
Calcifer is a character. He's a fire demon who has made a pact with Howl. He pretty much runs the castle, and he's incredibly grumpy about it. You could tell that Sophie and Calcifer grew quite fond of each other.
One of the things I love about fantasy most is the world-building and the way that the imagination has free reign. The descriptions of things that are completely imaginary and even from our normal lives, but with an interesting twist. Ms. Wynne Jones knew her fantasy and I could see how influential she was to Neil Gaiman as an author. That twisted convergence of fantasy and the lightest edge of the horrific. The Witch of the Waste is on the periphery of this novel, but she's a disturbing presence. Also, she's a cautionary tale to those who are corrupted by magic.
There's nothing to complex about this story. But simplicity can be gorgeous, and a well-told story outweighs author tricks that pad a novel unnecessarily. I consider this a fantasy classic.
**A note about the movie:
I do so much love the Anime version of this. It's gorgeous, and I can watch it again and again! There are some changes between it and the novel, but it's a great adjunct and exploration of the novel in a visual format. Definitely recommend it, but the source material is where you want to start. Read this book!