The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya
The story so far: On the surface Haruhi Suzumiya seems to be an ordinary if hyperactive Japanese schoolgirl, but in reality she is a being of immense power, possibly even God herself. Luckily for the rest of the us, she doesn't realize any of this. She's surrounded by the SOS Brigade, a club she started for the purpose of discovering aliens, espers, sliders, and time travelers. Ironically, the Brigade is filled with exactly the kind of people she's seeking, though none of them have any intention of telling her. Yuki Nagato is an android created by the alien Data Overmind; Itsuki Koizumi is an esper with highly specialized powers for dealing with Haruhi's reality-warping; and Mikuru Asahina is a time traveler. The only normal Brigade member is Kyon, the guy who had the misfortune to sit in front of Haruhi in class.
Disappearance begins a week before Christmas. The SOS Brigade has been in service for about seven months, and the stress of keeping Haruhi in check is starting to take its toll on Kyon and one of the other Brigade members -- though not who'd you expect. After listening to Haruhi's grand plans for a Christmas party (plans that violate a number of school rules and the fire code), Kyon returns home and falls into bed.
The next day begins normally enough, but on his way to school he notices a number of oddities, most notably that his entire school seems to've come down with the flu overnight -- except his classmates insist that that the epidemic started a week ago. Even Haruhi is absent.
Or so he thinks.
At lunch, SHE arrives. The girl who sits behind him in class. Except SHE isn't Haruhi. SHE is someone who should not be here -- cannot be here. Yet no one else notices anything wrong. They think SHE has been here all along. When he asks about Haruhi, no one knows what he's talking about. He rushes from class to find the other Brigade members, only to discover that Koizumi's whole class -- the classroom included -- has disappeared. When he approaches Mikuru, she doesn't know who he is and his attempt to convince her he knows her by revealing personal information -- yeah, going up to a girl and telling her you know she has a mole on her breast, not a good idea. Even Nagato seems to be an ordinary school girl now, sitting quietly in the Literature Club room reading, exactly as she used to before Haruhi took over the room.
Kyon faces a tough decision -- this is the ordinary world he's been craving since Haruhi forced herself into his life, yet it's not his world. This is what he's wanted for the last three books, but now that he has it, he has doubts. And so he sets out to restore the world to the way it was, and he must do it without the help of the other Brigade members.
This book is amazing. Up until this point, I've found the Haruhi Suzumiya series amusing but fluffy. The first volume was an origin story, so it got away with being a bit plotless since the focus was on establishing the world and characters. The second novel was an old-fashioned, "Let's put on a show!" story right out of the old Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney Musicals, with the added spice of Haruhi's reality-bending powers blurring the line between film and reality. It succeeded primarily because the characters were so much fun to be around, but by the end I was doubting how far these sorts of stories could carry the series before it would become nothing but inconsequential incidents more fitting for a daily comic strip than a novel series.
I have no more doubts. Put it this way, the anime series adapts four of the first five books. This is the one they skipped. Why? Because they were saving it for the movie. That's not to say this is some grand epic -- it's actually the shortest volume so far, at a mere 180 pages, and the only major fight happens off stage. There's a lot crammed into the story, but it's almost entirely introspective as Kyon comes to terms with the altered reality.
The most memorable moments are Kyon's interactions with the alt-Nagato. With the real Yuki's alieness removed, what remains is a sad, shy girl so lonely that one act of halfhearted kindness will make her fall in love.
Just as with the real Yuki, this Nagato hardly ever speaks, but unlike the real version she's able to convey her feelings with small gestures that reveal the depths of her misery -- tugging at Kyon's sleeves, handing him an application for the Literature Club in the hope that he'd come back and see her even though any sane woman would be filing a restraining order.
The revelation about what this alt-Yuki is and what Kyon must do to her to restore the world is absolutely heartbreaking to the point that I'm not sure he made the right choice, though he does make up for it somewhat in the penultimate scene when he discusses events with the real Nagato and reveals how far he'd go to save her.
(As a side note, the movie version hasn't received an official US release yet, but it is -- ahem -- available. The TV show was a pretty good adaptation of the books, but ultimately just light entertainment. As such, I was completely shocked by how powerful the film is. They completely nail it. Howard Hawks once defined a great film as having three great scenes and no bad ones, and this certainly meets his criteria and more.)