Free to Fall

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
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Thought-provoking mystery explores free will and technology.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Some letters of the Greek alphabet are shown along with a few phrases in Greek writing. The mathematical Fibonacci sequence is given and explained. Logic puzzles and riddles appear, including, What is the least number of lines needed to connect nine dots? Pythagoras' upsilon theory is explained, as is "timshel," a Hebrew word important in one of Steinbeck's novels. The title and central mystery revolve around the ideas, particularly free will, in Milton's Paradise Lost. A few passages are quoted, and their meanings are interpreted along with overall themes from the work. It'll really get kids thinking and talking about free will and how we exercise it in our increasingly tech-dependent lives.

Positive Messages

We always have the power to make the right choices, even if we rarely do. There's a lot of power in knowing the truth and having real wisdom. Compassion and mercy are powerful tools that can change people. You have to actively choose between doubt and reason so the choice isn't made for you by an external force.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Sixteen-year-old Rory is smart and academically driven. She's loyal to family and friends, determined to learn the truth, and unafraid to take action. She has good instincts and the self-confidence to follow them or proceed with caution when something doesn't seem right. Best friend Beck and love interest North model the importance of independent critical thinking. North models a lot of restraint and maturity when Rory wants to get physical; he wants to wait for the right circumstances. Rory has a solid family background and loving father, but she's on her own at boarding school. Teachers model academic excellence and a range of behavior from good to villainous.


In one classroom assignment, Rory experiences the emotional impact from a simulated, virtual-reality-type scenario of a fireworks disaster with mention of bodies flying through the air and burning. In one incident, shooting someone with a tranquilizer dart is described, and the sound of breaking bone is mentioned. Rory ties someone's wrists tightly enough to draw blood. An important character dies, with the final moments described without gore.


Rory and North kiss quite a few times, and she mentions and thinks about her feelings of emotional and physical attraction. One kiss happens when she's topless, although her body is not described. One kiss with tongue is described. A make-out session includes vague descriptions of sexual overtures, a deep kiss, the unbuttoning of a fly, and the feeling of a "stirring" beneath the fabric of boxer shorts. Teens mention casual hookups in a matter-of-fact way, but there's no detail. Oxytocin and its role in maternal bonding and orgasm are briefly explained.


"S--t" is used about a dozen times, along with infrequent variations. Other infrequent strong language includes "ass," "a--hole," "crap," "holy crap," "piss," "butt," "bitch," "douche bag," and "hell."


Mentioned once or twice:  Baileys, Kahlua, Anthropologie, Louis Vuitton, Hansen's, Converse, Toms shoes, Apple, SpaghettiOs, Galaxy, EpiPen, Wayfarers, Bluetooth, and YouTube. iPhone is mentioned several times as an older technology in the near future.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Teens drink mini-bottles of Baileys and Kahlua. There's mention of a past incident wherein a character drank so much she threw up on herself, as well as mention of excessive drinking on past "Welcome Nights" at the boarding school. Champagne is served at a party, and teens take some, though they're not depicted drinking it. Drugs mentioned include Rohypnol (roofies), a memory-erasing drug called ZIP, and triazolam. Rory willingly accepts ZIP several times, and it knocks her out briefly.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Free to Fall's intriguing mystery adventure is wrapped in a package that effectively introduces Milton's Paradise Lost and will get older tweens and teens thinking about free will, how we exercise it, and how advances in technology affect our decision-making processes. The boarding-school setting ensures a matter-of-fact attitude toward drinking, though the heroine, Rory, 16, doesn't overindulge, and the negative consequences for those who do are shown. The teens use strong language pretty liberally, mostly "s--t" and its variations. Rory and boyfriend North kiss quite a few times without a lot of detailed description, although one make-out session is described.

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What's the story?

In the near future, 16-year-old Rory is admitted to an exclusive boarding school for the country's brightest students, virtually assuring her future among the power elite. When she learns that her mother, who died shortly after she was born, also went to Theden Academy but didn't graduate, Rory determines to learn the truth about what happened to her. She soon meets the townie North, who steers clear of social media and doesn't use the decision-making app Lux, which Rory has been relying on to decide everything from which coffee drink to order to whom to ask to the dance. As she and North start to uncover the past, Rory becomes increasingly suspicious of the powerful hold Lux exercises over millions of people, including herself. She starts to understand the importance of being free to make her own choices in life. But if she wants everyone to have the same ability to choose for themselves, she's going to have to bring down a powerful secret society and the biggest tech company in the world.

Is it any good?

With FREE TO FALL, Lauren Miller has created an intriguing mystery that adeptly gets kids thinking about the role technology plays, and should play, in their lives. She uses the classic Milton poem Paradise Lost as a catalyst and key for the heroine to uncover her past and to save us from a mindless future in which not only are we incapable of making decisions for ourselves but also we don't even want to make them. Milton's big ideas are adroitly presented and easy for kids to understand without them being dumbed down.

This is thanks largely to the relatable heroine, Rory, whose believable voice will have kids admiring the academic achievement, logic, and critical thinking that Rory uses to solve problems. She's also emotionally accessible for teens as she struggles with a lot of the same issues of friendship, love, and life choices they face. Refreshingly, it's also a satisfying one-off, without an open ending that creates blatant hopes of future installments. Free to Fall stands every bit as much on its own as Rory does when she's free to decide her own fate.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the app Lux, which makes decisions for you. If it were available in the app store today, would you download it? Why, or why not?

  • Were you able to figure out the answers to any of the secret society riddles before Rory did? Which ones?

  • Should we be free to make our own choices, even if they're wrong? In other words, should we be free to fall, or should we be protected from making mistakes?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love mystery and dystopian novels

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