The Short Version: Behind an unassuming fancy travel agency on Park Avenue, down a very deep elevator shaft, sits the headquarters for the Regional Office – a team of highly-trained, highly-talented female assassins. And today, the Regional Office is under attack – by a team of traitors and defectors – and defended only by a few office drones and one woman with a mechanical arm.
The Review: I’m so incredibly happy that this book exists. You probably know if you’re the sort of person who’ll like this book just from looking at the cover – a sense of silliness, of unabashed fun, pervades the thing and the exclamation point in the title evokes genuine excitement. What is the Regional Office? Why is it under attack? What adventures lie in wait for intrepid readers like me? I’ve been asking these questions ever since spotting this on a list of upcoming Riverhead books some time ago and I’m thrilled to say that the answers pretty much met all the hopes I’d been building up inside.
The best analog I can think of for this book, if you need a hook to hang your hat on, would be if Nick Harkaway wrote Kill Bill. I’m a huge fan of Harkaway and that started with his ambitiously insane The Gone-Away World, which was a kitchen-sink-novel of inventive silliness – and I got the same frisson of excitement from The Regional Office is Under Attack! and its go-for-broke invention. I raced through the book in the space of one very lazy weekend and my great wish is that it was longer – that we got to know more about the world that houses not only a Regional Office but other teams similarly structured. I want to know more about Gemini and her battles with Harold Raines, about the use of magic in this world, about the daily lives of the operatives… Indeed, if i had one true complaint with the book, it’s that sometimes the scope of inquiry felt too narrow: Gonzales hints at the wider world just enough to make you irked that he didn’t go further. That having been said, that’s a nice complaint to have, no?
The novel also engages in some formal derring-do, with a recurring white paper (sharing the name of the novel but with the classy & hilarious subtitle: “Tracking the Rise and Fall of an American Institution”) that pops up between sections of the novel as well as a second-person-plural interlude that reminded me of Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End except that it had a lot more violence and achieved the same narrative trickery over way fewer pages. It’s this latter feat that most impressed me, because of how unexpected it was (arriving in the middle of the novel and diverting focus, to a large extent, from the A-plot) and how captivating it was. The story of the novel, essentially, is that the Regional Office is under attack (obviously, I guess) from a team of commandos who’ve broken in one ordinary workday morning. The office drones, whether or not they were aware of the organization they provided a front for, are held hostage and their numbers slowly dwindle – it’s deeply affecting stuff and the reader does feel like a part of the group, just as scared as they are. I appreciated that Gonzales wasn’t just smashing things up with super-human combatants but giving us the ordinary-eye view, humanizing the conflict in a way that all too few storytellers think to do.
Of course, he’s also great at creating the super-human folks and getting us to empathize with them. On the side of the Regional Office, we have Sarah – whose connection to the company runs far deeper than she maybe will let herself know and who sports a mechanical arm. She’s the company’s number two and one tough cookie. On the side of the attackers, we have Rose: a young woman, in over her head but she maybe doesn’t realize it. She’s just doing her job and doing it well. There are all kinds of battle sequences, featuring swords and severed limbs and robots and lasers and so on – but we never lose sight of these two women, their reality. Even as the action expands in over-the-top ways, it remains grounded by the characters who are participating. Gonzales is able to make us care from the very start about an organization we’d never heard anything about previously simply by making sure we get to know the two main characters on either side of the conflict.
Several of the plot points are cannily telegraphed throughout – references to Greek tragedy, prophecy, and hubris don’t just show up for no reason, not when there are actual Oracles around – but Gonzales also makes his intentions clear from the first lines of the book: the Regional Office is not only coming under attack, but there is a straight-up fall to the institution. We know that things aren’t going to go well – the joy is in the discovery of a) how they will not-go-well and b) why things got to this point in the first place. It’s in the latter, again, that I wished for a little more – a little more time with Emma, a little more time getting to know the Regional Office at its height, even a little more knowledge of the geopolitical complexities surrounding these shadow organizations. Things flew by, especially in the course of the assault (most of the novel’s present-tense action [there are many flashbacks] takes place over not much more than a morning into early afternoon), and when everything is suddenly wrapping up… there’s that slightly hollow feeling of “wait, that’s all?”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. For sheer inventiveness, the book gets full marks – it’s only for the sense of there being a lot of the world left on a cutting room floor somewhere that things drop down a half-step. It’s an adrenaline blast of crazy adventure and Manuel Gonzales appears to be interested in creating that purest of pleasures: something that’s just damn fun. His imagination sparks throughout and my great hope is that he comes back to the Regional Office someday – because the world needs more teams of ass-kicking female assassins, magical artifacts, and old-fashioned front organizations hiding old-school secret teams of save-the-planet types. But regardless, that inventiveness coupled with his delightful prose and dexterous craftsmanship results in a novel that earns the exclamation point in its title. Read it!