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NPR Arts & Life

The 'Regional Office' Doesn't Quite Deliver

"The evil undead, alien creatures threatening mass annihilation, and superpowered evil masterminds." So goes the list of threats the Regional Office — the top secret organization at the heart of The Regional Office Is Under Attack! — battles on a regular basis. Or at least that's what the beginning of the book would lead you to believe. Like far too much of Manuel Gonzales' debut novel, this enticing hook doesn't stick; rather than tackling globe-shaking adventure and intrigue, the story dwells on the internal politics and convoluted history of the mysterious Regional Office, as well as the lives of two young women, Rose and Sarah, who find themselves on opposing sides of the book's titular attack. This narrower focus does have plenty of possibility, and to his credit, Gonzales shows glimpses of wit and brilliance. What Office mostly fails to do, though, is give enough of a reason to care about its mythology-heavy plot — or the characters caught in it.

Sarah works for the Regional Office, whose clandestine headquarters lurk a mile below Manhattan, directly underneath a shell company, a travel agency that specializes in bizarre, impossible vacations. Her mother disappeared when she was 8; she now has a mechanical arm, like something out of a superhero film. Rose is an at-risk teen recruit, pop-culture junkie and self-described "spaz" turned against Regional by a traitor in the organization. At the start of the book, Rose is part of the assault force about to wage war against Regional HQ, while Sarah sits in her office, unaware of what's about to happen. As the attack unfolds, truths begin to surface: about Sarah's abducted mother; about Rose's troubled past; about Rose's recruiter, Henry; and about Mr. Niles and Oyemi, the founders of Regional, whose mystical, heroic team of Oracles and Operatives are tangled up in a web of dark secrets.

At the outset, Gonzales' dizzying concept promises to be a treasure chest of oddities, weirdness and wonders, and the potential is definitely there. By book's end, though, he simply fails to unpack them.

It's not the most original premise — still, at first, it appears as if Office might tweak and milk it for all it's worth. The prologue alone contains more imagination and wild ideas than some speculative fiction novels do in their entirety. But as the book progresses, it settles into a rut: Switching between chapters that take place in the present, copious flashbacks, interludes, letters, and excerpts of an academic paper cheekily titled The Regional Office Is Under Attack: Tracking the Rise and Fall of an American Institution, the story is hamstrung by too many choppy asides. Office also has a hard time balancing its tone; its mix of humor and poignancy falls flat, especially as the backstories of Rose and Sarah unspool. Gonzales pumps lots of pulp into his madcap vision, and that's mostly a plus; that said, his stream of geek-culture references — sticking mostly to the Star Warsand Marvel variety — too often comes across as obligatory.

For all its name-checking of sci-fi and superheroes, Office doesn't exactly resemble a comic book itself; instead it feels like a comic book turned into a movie turned into a TV spinoff turned into a novel. At one point a character's training sequence is described this way: "He karate-chopped it, the way you karate-chop something in a cartoon, the way that would never really work in real life." In another author's hands, that might have been a clever meta moment; here it underlines just how disjointed the whole story feels.

Gonzales makes up for many of Office's deficiencies with a wealth of dry humor, spirited dialogue and Rose's compelling voice. Unfortunately, it's all derailed by a big reveal that's obvious from the book's earliest pages — and one that isn't all that gripping or profound in the first place. At the outset, Gonzales' dizzying concept promises to be a treasure chest of oddities, weirdness and wonders, and the potential is definitely there. By book's end, though, he simply fails to unpack them.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at , a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

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