In Manuel Gonzales’s first book, a collection of short stories titled The Miniature Wife, a unicorn feeds on pulverized fairies, a man shrinks his wife, and a scientist plans ways to replace human organs with vegetables. Gonzales, in other words, is a literary writer with a taste for the offbeat, fantastic, and ridiculous. So of course his first novel is the story of a covert semi-mystical organization of superpowered teenaged female assassins known as The Regional Office.
And of course The Regional Office is under attack.
Our heroes in this story are Rose and Sarah, two young women on opposite sides of the attack. Rose is an Operative, an ordinary girl with extraordinary abilities whom the Office has honed into one of their Buffy-like superwomen. Sarah has no extraordinary abilities, but she does have a mechanical arm. While Rose is breaking into the Office Sarah is inside fighting to protect it, and racing to figure out who’s behind what can only be an inside job.
In between entertainingly over-the-top fight sequences, Gonzales pivots to deliver plot points and back story in a range of voices and styles. We get occasional excerpts from a drily funny analysis of the Office’s downfall, written by an unknown author after the events of the book have taken place. Elsewhere, Gonzales shifts to a lean third-person to tell the stories of Mr. Niles and Oyemi, the shadowy founders of the organization, and their genial Operative-recruiter Henry. The story jumps between the early days of Niles and Oyemi (including the mystical Oyemi's origin story—irradiated by an unknown source in an IKEA parking lot), which led to the creation of the Regional Office, which led to the recruitment of Rose and Sarah, which led to their Die-Hard-meets-Battle-Royale fight scenes in the present day. It's not immediately clear why Henry recruits Sarah (or why she might have that mechanical arm) but as the story continues the pieces start to fit together, each new section illuminating the ones that have come before until by the end, the story is as densely layered and nutty as a baklava.
Much of the book's complexity springs from the ways in which Gonzales plays with timelines and causality. We learn early on that the Office recruits not only Operatives like Rose, but also Oracles—women whom Oyemi transforms through a combination of arcane magic and high-tech gadgetry until they can predict the future. The Oracles, stripped of their humanity and agency, serve to find new Operatives as well as to guide the Office’s missions. As Oyemi tells Henry, "They do more than just hand down your recruiting assignments. . . . Their first order of business, in fact, is to scan through all time and all reality for threats to the Regional Office"(p. 286). That's how an Oracle issues a warning about the Office's impending downfall, creating a pinch point for the story to fold back on itself once more, layering cause and effect so closely that they're impossible to distinguish. Mr. Niles's father sums it up: "No matter what you do, a prophecy is a prophecy is a prophecy, and you can't do anything to change it that won't make it happen" (p. 166). Indeed.
There’s a lot going on in this book, and despite the short chapters and clear prose, it’s sometimes hard to track the story as it careens from Rose and Sarah’s violent, biff-bam-bap fight scenes through all this back story. Add in the academic analysis as well as a middle passage, a kind of blood-soaked darkly comic bridge, told by a gaggle of regular Office employees caught in the crossfire of the attack. (Spoiler: middle managers don’t fare well in a showdown between super-powered assassins.) And don't forget the mysterious Woman in Red and Wendy the dastardly office intern. At times the book feels like a comic book with too much imagery packed into each panel—a lot of fun, but a little hard to follow.
Gonzales strives to balance his book’s breathless pace and dramatic plot points with a deadpan style, but sometimes comes off like he’s reaching for a casual, cool-kid tone. For instance, a fight between Rose and a room full of lethal automatic booby traps goes like this:
Don’t think at all.
In between handspring and land, of course, grab one of the whirligig ones by the top of its whirligiggly head and throw it slicing into one of the big spinning slicers, the side-to- sider, not the up-and-downer, to cut the dervish clean in two, but which won’t quite stop the whirling, which will keep the laser-gunning head going long enough to knock out another gun turret (that’s two, three more to go) and the bottom going just long enough to mangle one of the other dervishes. (p. 43)
It’s easy to read this, easy to imagine it in a graphic novel or film format—but it’s not exactly prose to luxuriate in. Gonzales’s characters are weaponized teen girls, able to take out a room full of super-villain devices with their bare hands. Clearly this is a fantasy and a romp. So maybe it’s unfair to want more depth from the prose.
It doesn’t seem unfair, though, to want more character development. Sarah and Rose—both young, wronged women with superpowers and scrappy backgrounds—could be better-developed and more distinctive. With all the shifting time frames and fistfights, it’s hard at times to remember who’s who, who’s on which side, who knows what, and what the conflict is all about. In particular, it's odd that Rose and Sarah hardly seem to know each other, and that they don’t come face to face until extremely late in the game, when their entwined histories erupt into an epic showdown.
This is an undeniably fun, imaginative read—but it begs the inevitable question: what’s it all about? It isn’t the story of the Regional Office, which is already a goner before we start. It’s not the story of the Regional Office’s fight against the powers of darkness in the world. Except for a few asides about shadowy villains with names like Mud Slug, we never even learn what those powers are, or what they’re trying to do. And it’s not the story of a long-awaited showdown between two differently-powered superwomen in a grudge match. While Sarah and Rose do eventually come to blows, it doesn’t happen during the attack on the Regional Office. It actually takes years for them to unravel enough of their own backstory to understand why they’re enemies, to track each other down in the aftermath of the Office's downfall, and to go mano-a-mano in a fight scene that feels feels attenuated rather than vital.
The Regional Office is Under Attack! is a love letter to comic books and over-the-top girl-power properties like Kill Bill and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a darkly funny answer to the question, "What if Joshua Ferris and Jim Butcher took a road trip together?" It’s a treasure hunt and a cryptic crossword, full of hints and asides that only make sense in retrospect. But while Rose and Sarah are our heroes, this isn’t really their story. The love, hatred, and betrayal that destroy the Office don’t belong to Sarah or Rose. They’ve both got plenty of reasons to love and hate, but in the end they're merely weapons in a war being fought by their handlers. Like Oyemi and Mr. Niles, The Regional Office might be too clever and ambitious for its own good.