In a publishing world where we authors of a certain stripe are frequently told that there’s just no market for superheroic prose, it’s both heartening and frustrating when a work like this one manages to wend its way through the traditional distribution channels. Heartening because, like Soon I Will Be Invincible or The Violent Century, it’s another testament to the fact that using a superpowered comic book backdrop is not only resonant to audiences well-versed in these tropes, it’s actually marketable! Frustrating because, well, most of us who write this kind of stuff would love to be in Manuel Gonzalez’ shoes, receiving legit literary attention for our exercises in subgenre. Hell, Gonzalez already has a movie deal, with Ruben Fleischer of Zombieland renown signed on to helm a bigscreen version.
Personal bitterness aside, though, I have to admit this one hit me in my sweet spot. Whatever its merits as capital L Literature, it’s a rollicking ride that’s equal parts thrilling, grim and hilarious. It contains homages to and elements of everything from Die Hard to Minority Report to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., as well as sharp, glancing references to the many science fictional, magickal and fantastical devices familiar to comics readers from the Silver Age through the Dark Age and right up to whatever Age we’re in currently.
If the title isn’t a dead giveaway, Gonzalez’ novel concerns itself with the events surrounding an all-out assault on the headquarters of a mysterious organization dedicated to combatting the Dark Forces that are Amassing to Threaten our World. But the shadowy Regional Office is not a top secret governmental branch or an ancient order that’s been operating since the dawn of time; rather it’s a privately funded operation fronting as a high-end travel agency, and founded by a couple of lifelong friends–Mr. Niles and his superpowered crush object Oyemi–involving future-predicting Oracles and a vast network of mainly gorgeous badass female assassins, recruited–and sometimes abducted–from trailer parks, shopping malls, and high schools all over the country.
Bouncing between past and present, and far-flung locations from Texas to New York to a neighboring dimension, we learn the story of a couple of such recruits: Rose, a smalltown girl with a go-nowhere life and an inherent knack for mayhem; and Sarah, a fairly ordinary if high-strung woman with a tragic backstory and a mechanical arm. Their destinies are set on a collision course when a couple of disgruntled Regional Office employees decide to repay disappointment and betrayal with the titular attack.
Whether you’re into the superpowered subgenre or not, The Regional Office is just a really fun, page-turning read that doesn’t take itself too seriously, brimming with a drily sarcastic millennial wit that offsets the sometimes shocking moments of intrigue, danger and violence. But neither is it a constantly campy jokefest or all satire and no substance. Gonzalez gives us just enough, at least with a few of his characters, to raise the stakes and shape them into human beings to be fascinated with (if never to quite root for). Many things are sketched in or unexplained–i.e., we never learn why the Office recruits only women to their cause–and in a few cases that’s frustrating (we never discover one character’s actual fate, despite a few suggestive hints), and I can’t help wonder if Gonzalez wanted to leave things open-ended enough for a sequel or three. But the narrative filigree he uses to sketch out his world is right in my wheelhouse–warlocks in Kansas, interdimensional field ops, nanotech with a mind of its own. In my own superhero prose, I take great pleasure in dropping those kinds of high concept notions into casual conversation or interior monologue, the suggestion of a wider, wilder world often more tantalizing than a fully committed plunge into all of its depths.
Gonzalez is a terrifically entertaining writer, his one notable weakness for me an over-reliance on a singular snark-drenched voice; whether he’s in Rose’s head or Sarah’s, crafting long passages of a fictitious academic research paper on the attack and its aftermath, or putting us in the heads of hapless hostages during the siege, the point of view and offhandedly chatty tone remain almost too consistent. But despite these quibbles and a couple of narrative dead ends and unrealized ideas, The Regional Office is Under Attack passes this reader’s ultimate litmus test: I kinda wish I’d written it myself.