Book review: Castle in the Air, by Diana Wynne Jones

Castle in the Air coverOnce upon a time, in the land of Zanzib, there lived a young carpet merchant named Abdullah. Abdullah’s life was safe but dull, and his only excitement came when he daydreamed himself to be a long-lost prince. Then one day, a man offered to sell him a magic carpet…


Castle in the Air is a 1990 children’s novel by the sadly deceased Diana Wynne Jones. It’s billed as a sequel to the better-known Howl’s Moving Castle, but it stands alone very well – I did fine despite having forgotten pretty much everything about Howl. In fact, Howl fans might be advised to approach this as a separate story – Amazon reader reviews suggest the two books are only tangentially connected.


Connection or no connection, this is a book that does well on its own merits as a light-hearted romp through a fairy-tale world. Castle in the Air is the kind of book where chapter after chapter, the hero escapes from the frying pan only to land in the fire. The surprise, and the fun, lie in discovering how he makes it out each time! It helps that the characters are so vividly drawn. We’ve seen Abdullah’s archetype – the dreamy lad whose wish for adventure comes true – a thousand times before, but Jones breathes life and charm into him all the same. Consider this description of Abdullah’s imaginary backstory:


The daydream was enormously detailed by now. In it, Abdullah was the son of a mighty prince who lived so far to the east that his country was unknown in Zanzib. But Abdullah had been kidnapped at the age of two by a villainous bandit called Kabul Aqba. Kabul Aqba had a hooked nose like the beak of a vulture and wore a gold ring clipped into one of his nostrils. He carried a pistol with a silver-mounted stock with which he menaced Abdullah, and there was a bloodstone in his turban which seemed to give him more than human power. Abdullah was so frightened that he ran away into the desert, where he was found by the man he called his father now. The daydream took no account of the fact that Abdullah’s father had never ventured into the desert in his life; indeed, he had often said that anyone who ventured beyond Zanzib must be mad. Nevertheless, Abdullah could picture every nightmare inch of the dry, thirsty, footsore journey he had made before the good carpet merchant found him. Likewise, he could picture in great detail the palace he had been kidnapped from, with its pillared throne room floored in green porphyry, its women’s quarters, and its kitchens, all of the utmost richness. There were seven domes on its roof, each one covered with beaten gold…


I just love that passage’s combination of dry wit and relatability. We’ve all probably imagined, in excruciating detail, the lives of luxury we’d lead if we won the lottery. Abdullah is exactly the same, just in reverse! Multiply that by an entire book, and an entire cast of characters (like Abdullah, they’re riffs on familiar archetypes; but also like Abdullah, they’re interesting and well-written), and the result is delight.


Does the book have staying power? I don’t know. It doesn’t tackle Deep and Meaningful Themes, and it makes no attempt to offer profound insight into the human condition. I do know that it’s funny, breezy, and suitable for readers of all ages. When I read it, I grinned, I laughed, and I felt a sense of wonder at Jones’ world of magic. If you’re after a book to put a smile on your face, this might just be the one.



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