In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.
Sophie Hatter was the oldest of three sisters.
A children's/young adult fantasy novel by Diana Wynne Jones. One of my favorite of Jones' books, although not nearly as popular as her Chrestomanci books.
The story starts out shortly after the death of Sophie's father. Sophie's mother finds that she can't afford to keep all three of her daughters at home; she sends the youngest, Martha, out to apprentice to a respectable witch a few valleys over. The middle sister (the pretty one), is sent to apprentice at the local bakery. And Sophie, being the eldest, stays at home, apprentice to the hat shop where she had worked all her life. Sophie doesn't mind this, but she quickly becomes something of a shut-in, spending all of her time working on the hats, and spending more time talking to the hats than to other people. The hat business prospers, and Sophie's hats gain a reputation for being special -- so much so that they draw some unwanted attention.
At this time there are some evil witches and wizards running about in kingdom; most notably the Witch of the Waste and Wizard Howl (who eats young girls' hearts). One day the Witch of the Waste stops by the hat shop, apparently under the impression that Sophie has been bespelling the hats she sells. She declares Sophie's hats to be rubbish, but just in case, she also curses Sophie, turning her into and old woman, with the added burden of not being able to tell anyone what has happened to her.
Sophie decides that she must run away from home before her mother returns and finds her as an old hag. She packs up some provisions and heads for the hills. But when nightfall comes, she finds that she is nowhere near the next town, lost high in the hills, and is very tired and cold. Luckily(?), as she's trudging through the hills, she comes upon Howl's magic castle floating slowly across the moorland. It's dark and foreboding, but it's also billowing smoke, which means a warm fire inside. And Howl only eats the hearts of young girls, right? She decides to risk stopping in for the night.
As it turns out, Howl is not interested in eating Sophie's heart, and allows her to stay on as his housekeeper. Howl's fire demon, Calcifer, also wants her to stay -- he even promises that he'll lift the spell on her... when she breaks the spell binding him to Howl.
Sophie finds that living in Howl's castle isn't too bad; she likes Howl's apprentice, Michael, and Howl seems more self-centered and cowardly than dangerous. The castle has one door, but it opens to four different places, depending what color you set it to - the moving castle, a house in Kingsbury (the capital city), one in Porthaven, or a mysterious black force field that Howl forbids anyone from going through. Sophie also has access to seven-league boots and cloaks of disguise, which she uses to try and protect her sisters (at least one is in danger from Howl). Many adventures ensue.
More I will not say for fear of spoiling the story.
Howl's Moving Castle could qualify as comic fantasy, although comic on the same level as Harry Potter rather than the Discworld books. It's a good, fun read, but it's a little long, and there's a lot going on by the end of the book, so you'll need a good attention span. It's probably most appropriate for kids 12 years of age and up (and up and up). I highly recommend it.
First published in 1986 by Greenwillow books, although the most recent edition was published by Eos in 2001. The sequel, of sorts, to Howl's Moving Castle is Castle in the Air.
This section contains spoilers for both the book and the movie; the writeups above also cover the movie in considerably more detail, although without reference to the book. (To summarize without spoilers, the book is better.)
There are a number of differences between the book and the movie, perhaps the biggest being that while the book is set in a pre-industrial fairytale-type setting, the movie is in a Victorian steampunk setting. In the movie there is also a terrible war raging, with bombs dropping and monsters flying through the sky. The movie also cuts out the black door leading to an alternate universe (probably a good thing). Instead it leads to the past and future (a bad thing). Other major differences include that in the movie Howl regularly transforms into a giant flying feathered monster; Sophie has no magic; wizard Suliman also takes on the role of Mrs. Pentstemmon (Howl's old teacher), and is a woman, and is bad; the witch of the waste isn't particularly bad, in the end.
Aside from having changed a tremendous amount of the story, the movie isn't too bad. It is certainly a chintzy Disney anime film, but not a bad one. It would be easier for me to enjoy if I wasn't so attached to the book; a lot of the cool effects of the movie were lessened because my first thought was "well, that's not right!". And I do believe that much of what is in the movie is a step or two down from the book. I would not recommend going out of your way to see the movie (although I would recommend going out of your way to read the book).