Generations after the Big Shake left the world in ruins, Mega City emerged from the rubble. Dominated by women, Mega City is ruled by the all-powerful Déesse from her royal enclave in the Towers, apartment buildings filled with elites and acolytes. Déesse controls the city with an endless wave of propaganda, drugs, and all-girl crews. Mega City is the exact opposite of our society: a matriarchy where men are second-class citizens who are treated like sex objects and devalued as human beings. Young girls are recruited into training camps and eventually form their own crews, marauding groups of teen girls battling each other for popularity, enforcing Déesse’s rules, and crushing dissent amongst the serfs. That is, until the Ashé Ryders, a crew long-believed disbanded, infiltrates the city.
In the midst of all this is Chief Rocka, the leader of the Las Mal Criadas crew. All sharp edges and bitter words, she is a BAMF sixteen-year-old going on thirty who rules the streets with an iron fist. In a world where girl soldiers are taught to fight first, ask questions never, Chief Rocka is queen of them all. She dreams of a life in the Towers as Déesse’s second in command, but is haunted by nightmares of her childhood spent longing for the father and sister who abandoned her and worrying over her drug addicted mother. When they’re offered a chance at the Towers by running a spy mission on the Ashé Ryders, the LMCs jump into action. But beyond the city walls lies a mystery Chief Rocka isn’t ready to face. The truth about Mega City, its glorious leader, and Chief Rocka’s own past will shake her world to its core.
By the end of Dealing in Dreams, it’s clear there are no heroes in Lilliam Rivera’s latest novel. A Big Bad looms over everything, but the story is populated by characters who are as morally ambiguous as they are morally compromised. Mega City is filled with decent people doing the best they can under terrible circumstance, awful people exploiting everyone and everything for their own personal gain, and many who float somewhere in between.
Take Chief Rocka. Once known as Nalah, she long ago traded her civilian name for a nom de guerre, thereby building a wall between her two lives, the old and the new, the soft and the hard, the soon-to-be-forgotten and the all-too-real. In the beginning, we admire her fortitude and bravery, but once she gets out of Mega City we see she isn’t nearly as tough as she thinks she is… or as infallible and wise. She makes choices—good and bad and risky—out of selfishness, ego, and desperation. She sees a few trees and thinks she’s looking at a forest. What she doesn’t know is as great as what she chooses to ignore. This makes her a challenging protagonist to side with. Some readers might even call her unlikable, although for me that’s not really a negative. I don’t need to like a character in order to empathize with them. Given Chief Rocka’s life, a little empathy is warranted.
As it happened, I read Dealing in Dreams immediately after Tehlor Kay Mejia’s We Set the Dark on Fire. Frankly, they worked rather well as a pair. Both layer dystopian YA with Latinx influences and push the subgenre to new heights by twisting tropes in on themselves. But Mejia and Rivera do it in divergent ways. Dealing in Dream’s Chief Rocka and We Set the Dark on Fire’s Daniela both want to carve a safe life in a corrupt system, but as each girl learns the truth at heartbreaking cost, Dani gains the strength to keep fighting while Chief Rocka reels with uncertainty. Dani sides with the guerrilla fighters but Chief Rocka sees the numerous flaws in both leaders. Each girl faces similar questions, but Chief Rocka must answer them on her own. Is a corrupt system worth sustaining if it’s the only system you have? Can you fix a broken system without breaking it even more? What if the exiled are right to demand change but wrong in how they want to go about it? Is the fate of the world really resting on the shoulders of one teenage girl or is she the spark of a revolution that’s bound to happen eventually anyway?
Unfortunately, there are some crucial structural issues that bog down the story. With the Ashé Ryders, Chief Rocka undergoes a drastic shift in perspective. Her turnabout alters not just her future but that of her crew, unallied people in Cemi Territory, the Ashé Ryders, and everyone in Mega City. Her whole story is leading up to this metamorphosis, but the fallout from it is barely dealt with. Rather than lingering on the change, Rivera rushes through it with time jumps and Chief Rocka repeating information she’s already mentioned several times. On one hand, this leave plenty of room for a sequel; on the other, by rushing through the emotional climax, it lessens its impact.
I also think we needed to spend some time outside of Chief Rocka’s head. Because Chief Rocka is so utterly oblivious to anything other than her immediate needs or wants, we get little sense of the world or people around her. What little we know of her comrades-in-arms comes solely from how Chief Rocka interprets their actions, and her interpretations rarely extend to anything beyond herself. The rest of her crew also emerge from the Ashé Ryders wholly changed from the experience, but she hurriedly relays the information to the reader rather than letting us see it for ourselves.
Dealing in Dreams is a ferocious young adult novel about the violence done to us and the violence we do to others. It takes the all-too-real premise of a fascist leader donning the guise of democracy while presiding over a population too scared to leave but too angry to stay, then stitches it onto a story of an adolescence torn between painful truths and willful ignorance. Even with its flaws, Lilliam Rivera’s novel offers a unique, relevant, and vital take on YA dystopian fiction.
Dealing in Dreams is available from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
Alex Brown is a high school librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.