The premise is set in a fantasy style setting, though time period is never specified (indeed, given that they basically go dimension hopping, it’s not surprising). Sophie is the eldest of three girls, and per rules of fairy tales, the oldest girl never prospers. So, after their father dies, her two sisters are sent out in the world to learn amazing skills, while Sophie is left helping her stepmother run the family’s hat shop.
But this is not your usual fairy tale, and soon Sophie finds herself in a very strange situation indeed. The Witch of the Waste arrives, accuses Sophie of somehow meddling in her plans, and before Sophie can figure out what’s going on, the Witch has turned her into an old woman!
Rather than stay and explain what happened, Sophie decides to make her own way. To this end she heads on down the road, and finds herself feeling free, since old people are allowed to be eccentric. She finds herself at the Wizard Howl’s castle, a strange flying building that has recently set down near Sophie’s village. Howl supposedly likes to catch young girls and collect their souls, but Sophie figures she’s safe since she is now old. She bullies her way past Howl’s apprentice and strikes up a deal with Howl’s fire demon Calcifer. If she can figure out how to free him, he’ll help her figure out how to change back to a young girl.
So Sophie winds up being housekeeper for the very messy Howl, his hapless apprentice, and Calcifer, while Howl gallivants about between wizarding jobs, flirting with girls, and trying to escape the Witch of the Waste, who is apparently mad at him as well. They all make for a very amusing quartet.
In the end, this is nothing more than a coming of age book, albeit a strange one. Sophie gains confidence once she stops worrying about society’s expectations. And she matures because, well, one really ought to be mature if they’re in their 70’s or 80’s, shouldn’t they?
It’s really a funny book. Sophie’s blooming confidence (to the point of being able to bully people quite well when called for), Calcifer’s snarkiness, and Howl’s airheaded behavior makes for some very interesting dialogue and a fun story.