Dealing in Dreams
by Lilliam Rivera
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I read and enjoyed Lilliam Rivera's debut novel, The Education of Margot Sanchez, but didn't review it because it was a mainstream story. When I learned her second book would be more speculative in nature I was definitely interested, and checked frequently to see if an ARC was available. Net Galley obliged in exchange for an honest review. What follows is my honest opinion.
Unfortunately, I didn't enjoy Dealing in Dreams as much as I had hoped. The characters and their back-stories, and the world-building, were insufficient in generating enough interest for me to care what happened to them. The first-person narrator is seventeen-year-old Nalah, although very few people know her real name. To the rest she is Chief Rocka, leader of the girl gang Las Mal Criadas. That translates to either The Spoiled Brats, The Bad Maids, possibly even The Blessed, depending on language (Spanish or Portuguese) or the context in which it's used. The events occur some years after the Big Shake of 2060, but it's vague as to whether that was a natural earthquake, with one comment implying it might have been exacerbated by fracking, or perhaps it's used in a metaphorical, political shake-up, sense. The main action is in Mega City, probably New York, with several place names that indicated the Bronx, the author's birthplace.
Mega City is ruled by Déesse, a woman who has created a matriarchal society, with men in subserviant positions of 'toiler' or 'papi chulos,' male companions who work in various boydegas (I initially thought Nalah was misspelling bodega). Some girls and women, those not chosen to be trained for the girl gangs, work as toilers too. They manufacture or repurpose whatever Déesse deigns to allow her subjects to use, as well as food pellets and the narcotic 'sueños' (dreams). Sueños are also used as a currency, especially at the boydegas and mercados. The girl gangs are limited to five members each, patrolling specific areas of Mega City. They are periodically pitted against each other in 'throwdowns,' with the victors gaining more esteem, hopefully to one day move up in rank enough to live in the Towers with Déesse. That rivalry between gangs insured none would align together into a group strong enough to threaten Déesse's rule.
Too much of the plot was telegraphed in advance, but being in first-person, we have to struggle through passages of Nalah's seeming ignorance of what's going on around her. She is arrogant in thinking she knows what's what, what she wants and needs, what her girls want and need. She's blinded by her desire to live in the Towers, as if that will solve all her problems. Those problems began with her abandonment by her father and older sister, then the death of her mother, which may have been from addiction to sueños. Déssee stepped in and acted as a surrogate parent, recruiting Nalah into one of her training camps, which were as much indoctrination camps as they were fighting schools. Nalah is also blind to the fact that even though she may be the better fighter, she's not necessarily the best leader for her gang. That would be her second-in-command, Truck. The book also suffers from being too short, and also that it's just the beginning of another series. While the last few chapters were the best, I'm not sure I'm interested enough to continue the journey.
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