Dealing in Dreams by Lilliam Rivera is like Mad Max mashed up with The Outsiders. Nalah runs a gang of hardcore girls who work for the head honcho of Mega City. Nalah must keep her crew in line, fight for basic needs, fend off rivals, and take on a deadly assignment.
I love the concept. It’s a great way to think about a world where gender stereotypes are reversed in some ways and completely erased in others. It also shows that humans have a problem with control and violence, no matter who’s doing it. However, humans have a reservoir of strength and capacity to do good. I didn’t always like the writing, and I was frequently frustrated with the characters—but that could be how Rivera makes this book incredibly gripping.
Short and choppy sentences make for tiresome reading with only a few sustained thoughts given to the reader. Most are less than twenty words. My mind felt jerked around from this to that like a weird bungee jumping game. There’s a lot of slang, which is fun, but you also have to learn it. As a nerd for grammar, I winced a lot when I saw in writing how people spoke (but I do break the rules, so I try not to be too much of an annoying whistle blower!)
On the other hand, the mental whiplash does something perfect: it helps you experience what’s being described, and that’s what writing should do. When Nalah is negotiating with a hostile group, you feel that intensity; you don’t have a lot of space to be elegant (which is terrifying when elegance and calmness is needed for negotiations!) The action is nonstop. Each page has a character and situation front and center. You feel the emotional intensity without even trying. It sucks you into the room, the discussion, the fight, and dares you to not care about the outcome. Rivera’s writing plugs you directly in to the world she built.
As the Las Mal Criadas crew chief, Nalah tends to see the world in black and white. Many times, that contrast is used to suggest right and wrong, a kind of moral or ethical scale where there is always one answer that is wrong and at least one that is morally justified. Here, it’s not so much about ethics as it is about survival and loyalty. That kind of simplicity doesn’t match up with my experience of the world; there are times when there is no obvious choice, and there are times when I have so many options that I just have to choose and see what happens. I got frustrated with Nalah when she couldn’t seem to imagine life outside loyalty and survival—but especially when the people who interacted with her couldn’t think outside those categories.
This might be Rivera’s genius. She created a world where gangs rule, and they’re young people, some as young as nine years old. Everyone is always fighting for control—control of food, control of territory, control of staying alive. Each gang is ready to pounce on anyone that smells weak. Every opportunity for advancement is taken as soon as the door is cracked, or once the click of the deadbolt unlocks. The “rush rush rush now now now” feeds the two beasts of loyalty and survival, and they can be monstrous bear-tigers that protect you or bite your head off.
Check out this book if you want a full-throttle ride.