Castle in the Air, by Diana Wynne Jones


At least this cover doesn’t make me want to devote another 500 words to critiquing it.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Diana Wynne Jones cribbed from Disney’s 1992 Aladdin, but Castle in the Air came out first (in 1990). Perhaps more strangely, I haven’t found anything about the making of Aladdin that confirms that they were inspired by Castle in the Air… but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some cross pollination.

As with Howl’s Moving Castle, perhaps even more so, this is a book that I want to discuss critically. I wish that it had been part of my curriculum at some point, if only because there’s so much available to talk about.

I don’t know how to talk about it without some thematic *SPOILERS*, so here’s your warning. If you want to remain totally unspoiled, know that I recommend the book but have some critiques I’d love to explore. If you are willing to put up with my brief explorations, which I’ll keep as unspecific as I can, I’ve got a lot more to say.

Here goes.

First, this book doesn’t do a good job with its portrayal of (or inclusion of) fat people. Especially fat female characters. More could be said there, but I’ve got my brain stuck on another topic, which is…

There’s an odd tension in the story; Jones works hard, scraping out space for her female characters to have agency even as she tells a story that entirely revolves around the damsel-ing trope. I’m unsure how to interpret this tension. It seems clear to me that Castle in the Air is intended as a response to less empowering narratives—if nothing else, the internal narrative of Abdullah, the novel’s primary point of view character, is remarkably fast at embracing and appreciating a more empowering perspective of the women around him. His appreciation reads like an early model of the kind of appreciation (or the internal transformation of perspective) we’d want people to experience for, well, anyone who was an object of desire.

In Chapter 2, his first encounter with Flower-in-the-Night—the literal woman of his dreams—sees him immediately execute revisions: “…nor were her huge dark eyes at all misty. In fact, they examined his face keenly, with evident interest. Abdullah hastily adjusted his dream, for she was certainly very beautiful.” This pattern continues, with Abdullah expressing appreciation for intelligence, logic, cunning, and general capability. Were this a formal paper, I’d give you exhaustive notes. Furthermore, once Abdullah realizes that he’s not dreaming he also revises his assumptions: though he is very much in love with Flower-in-the-Night, he doesn’t assume that she would want him. Nor does he see her as his. It’s essentially the opposite of the garbage behavior so common to romance-genre male love interests (especially those of the 1980s, when this book was written).

But Abdullah’s appreciation for capable women, reinforced further later in the story, contrasts with the tone created by the structure of the story itself. Time and again, the female characters of this story are captured, kidnapped, or ensorcelled against their will… while the male characters routinely take leadership of the pieces of the story they occupy. Perhaps Jones’ deeper commentary is that, while the male protagonists bumble along as comic heroes—progressing through unearned magical powers and luck—the story’s women are forced to make do in worse circumstances with innate wit, skill, and ingenuity.

In fact, in a number of ways, the portrait painted of male characters in general is unflattering, while the female characters are capable despite being unfairly put upon. That holds in places for Howl’s Moving Castle too.

Okay. I have another big topic for this book: Orientalism. It’s kind of unavoidable when you’re writing a story inspired by fairy tales collected by a literal Orientalist (according to Wikipedia, Antoine Galland got the story of Aladdin [and others] from Antun Yusuf Hanna Diyab in the course of translating A Thousand And One Nights).

For what it’s worth, I think Jones did a consistent job of evoking specific cultural traits for her fictional world without exoticizing them as much as other contemporaneous stories did. And where she fell back on classically Orientalist depictions, she usually also pointed those out as eccentricities based on attempts to manipulate a prophecy. But I don’t know that she’s entirely in the clear, and I’m not really the right person to say that she is. Suffice to say, this is something you should be aware of as you’re reading.

Despite that, I definitely enjoyed this book. I also recommend it. And I wish that I had a conference of folks with whom I could discuss it.


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