Having taken a look at the novel which began a legend, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, earlier this year, the UK has now been graced with the second in Nagaru Tanigawa's series of light novels which brings together time travellers, espers and aliens under the banner of possible god Haruhi Suzumiya's SOS Brigade.
Much like the first novel, the plot of The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya should be instantly familiar to anyone who has watched the Haruhi television anime television series - even more so if you've caught the 2009 extension of the series, which covers the goings-on within this novel in more detail. This second book is set a fair few months after the climax to the first book, with relative normality having descended upon the life of the ever-cynical Kyon once again... that is, until Haruhi decides that the SOS Brigade needs to make a splash at the school's forthcoming culture festival. To do this, and in her typical whimsical fashion, Haruhi chooses to shoot a movie as the brigade's project for the festival, demanding award-winning performances and special effects along the way despite practically making up the film's plot as she goes along. Needless to say, Haruhi's choice of project becomes problematic to say the least when it comes to her own subconscious ability to shape and change the world to her desires, and as filming goes on so the differences between reality and the world created within Haruhi's mind being to blur in some most alarming ways. With ever more bizarre goings-on "infecting" the landscape, it's once again left up to Kyon to return the world to normality somehow - A tough task against the intransigent nature of Haruhi's personality.
Compared to the steady and well-planned pacing of "Melancholy", The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya unfortunately feels far more stilted in its attempts to build up its core plot, quite possibly due to the fact that Nagaru Tanigawa simply wasn't planning to write more than one novel originally by all accounts. This makes the start of the book an awkward affair which brings the reader slightly clumsily up to speed with the world of Haruhi (while laying down some openings for future stories) in a way that frankly takes far too long without ever really hitting the entertaining heights of its predecessors - Even Kyon's normally sharp retorts seem to lack something at times, as it feels almost as though we're just going through the motions.
Thankfully, once that groundwork has been laid out and the real story begins, we see more and more of what makes this franchise as popular as it is shine through. Again, it takes a little while to really get into the swing of things, but as we reach the portion of the book where filming Haruhi's madcap movie commences in earnest we start to regain an appreciation of why we're reading the novel in the first place - Kyon is back to his world-weary best, Haruhi's temperament fascinates and frustrates in equal measure, and even the arguably clichéd characters such as Asahina and Nagato fill their roles perfectly without ever becoming overly cartoonish.
Aside from being purely entertaining, this second novel actually succeeds in taking us towards darker territory on several counts too - While Haruhi's jealousy comes to the fore and rifts appear in the already uneasy relationship between Nagato, Koizumi and Asahina, even Kyon reveals depths that were previously left buried and unseen. While The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya is still primarily a light-hearted read designed to entertain alone, this new-found edge actually adds notably to the proceedings without detracting from that sense of fun and the knowing nods at otaku culture that Tanigawa employs.
What we're left with here then is in many ways a book of two halves - As the first half tries too hard to tie everything together in an overly long and verbose way, so the second arguably perfects both the world of this franchise and the characters that inhabit it in a way that blends frivolity and some "deeper" topics in terms of both character and concept quite admirably. If you can make it through the plodding first half, then The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya still has plenty to delight its readers. The big question is how many people who aren't Haruhi die-hards will make it beyond that big "if".