As I kept reading The Regional Office is Under Attack (2016) by Manuel Gonzales, whipsawing back and forth between being impressed and being annoyed, I found myself pulling for Gonzales to pull it off, and it was a near thing. In the end, I think I come down on the side of the novel frustrating somewhat more than it delights, though it leaves me intrigued to see what Gonzales comes up with next.
The titular office is an agency that, according to their own sign (written in light-blue calligraphy), is:
Uniquely positioned to Empower and Strengthen otherwise troubled or at-risk Young Women to act as a Barrier of last resort between the survival of the Planet and the amassing Forces of Darkness that Threaten, at nearly every turn, to Destroy it.
Employed to that end are a trio of Oracles (think Minority Report-like prophecies of impending crises), a number of female Operatives with both superpowers and superior training, an office manager (though don’t call her that) with a mechanical arm, two semi-mysterious founders (the Director Mr. Niles and his more enigmatic partner Oyemi), and a recruiting/training specialist named Henry.
While the agency’s escapades sound exciting as they take on “the evil undead, alien creatures threatening earthly annihilation, superpowered evil masterminds … a den of werewolves or a nest of vampires,” and the like, Gonzales dispenses with a novel’s worth of adventures in a few scattered throwaway lines, letting the S.H.I.E.L.D/Xavier’s School for the Gifted sort of plots serve as background. In fact, we begin with the attack which, as our writing-from-the-future third-person narrator tells us several times, will result in the Office falling (excerpts also regularly pop up from an academic text subtitled “The Rise and Fall of an American Institution”).
Gonzales switches between several POVs beyond the aforementioned narrator. The two main ones are Rose and Sarah. Rose, one of the attackers, is a powerful teen girl whose backstory comes to us in bits and pieces via flashback chapters. Sarah, meanwhile, is on the opposite side; she’s our view of the Office’s defense against the attack (she’s the one with the mechanical arm), and she too gets intervening chapters to fill in the story of how she came to the Office. Finally, there’s an interlude with a plural POV that follows several of the Office’s regular ranks of workers as they move through periods of capture-escape-recapture and so on.
To start with the positives in The Regional Office is Under Attack, Gonzales has a breezy, often witty voice that moves the reader along quickly, whether that’s in narration, monologue or dialogue. Another strength is how Rose’s rough life in her small town is vividly portrayed in wonderfully sharp, poignant detail. And Gonzales tosses in a smorgasbord of pop culture references (especially films and TV shows) that the reader can have a lot of fun with.
Unfortunately, as noted in the introduction, the strengths are at least fully balanced, if not slightly outweighed by the book’s flaws. One is that complicated structure. I’m a huge fan of author’s playing with structure, with multiple POVs, interlude chapters and the like, but we shift gears so many times and so frequently that our two main characters are underserved. Just as we start to get some sort of emotional response to whatever is happening with them, we’re yanked out into a different timeline or plot or narration, and often with a different tone as well as subject. And while Gonzales has that nicely breezy voice, it unfortunately is carried across too many narrations, despite wide-ranging differences in age and experience. The pop references start out as fun, but accumulate too many too quickly. Similarly, some of the references to the comic-book like endeavors of the Office are also fun, but at some point one begins to wonder why we’re bothering with them. That plural-we narrative interlude has potential, but again Gonzales seems to work against himself here by giving us characters who are pretty unlikable and/or absurdly inept or selfish, and while I like the idea that I think he was going for — pawns caught between big powers — the graphic violence and ugly characters made it difficult to feel much.
I did enjoy large segments of The Regional Office is Under Attack even as I wished for more time with and focus on our two main characters and if, in the end, it disappointed slightly more than it pleased, Gonzales shows enough creativity and style that I’ll pick up his next work to see what he has going on. I just hope it won’t be too much.