Friday, May 24, 2024

Book Review: Freeset by Sarina Dahlan

The sequel to Reset continues the story of the post-apocalyptic world of the Four Cities

Sarina Dahlan’s Reset and its prequel Preset depict the post-apocalyptic world of the Four Cities, seemingly the only surviving remnant of humanity. Through the eyes of the original founder Eli, the hidden “Crone” Eleanor, and artists/lovers Aris and Metis, humans grew and tried to transcend the “reset” of Tabula Rasa that every four years wipes out the memories of nearly everyone.

Freeset continues and completes the story of Eli, Eleanor, Metis, Aris, and the Four Cities.

The first book, Reset, was at its heart a love story. Not just between Aris and Metis, the main characters caught in the inevitability of the quadrennial cycle of the memory-erasing Tabula Rasa, but also between Eli, the planner and creator of the four cities, and Eleanor, his secret (as far as most people are concerned) co-creator. Eleanor is in a sense the serpent in the dystopian garden, providing and offering methods for people to, if not break free of the cycle, at least have memories of their previous 4-year lives. It’s a story about the testament and power of love.

Preset takes love in a different direction as we see, two centuries earlier, the love of trying to save humanity, itself the driving force in a novel that shows the early life of Eli and Eleanor. We get to see how the Four Cities came to be after the disastrous fall of the old order. It’s a much less hopeful book than the first, a darker tone spread across two timeframes: the fall itself, and the foundation of the cities.

Freeset, this new novel, picks up the story as a true sequel to Reset. Freeset decides to do something different: to its strength, and to its weakness, this third and final novel in the sequence decides to deeply explore its society in a way we didn’t see in Preset (since that is a story of the founding of the cities) or Reset (because of its strong focus on the relationships driving the city more than on the technology). And to an extent, Freeset does try to capture that dynamic by showing the strength and endurance of the bonds between the four characters.

Where Freeset differs is in explaining and showing a fair amount of the underpinnings of the dystopia that we saw built in Preset and saw in full in Reset. I think there is a potential weakness in showing and explaining too much of a dystopia, and I think that this novel shows the perils of doing so. This goes to the whole idea of worldbuilding, the shared delusion, and what is shown and not shown in a story. One cannot completely capture the complexity of a world, for we cannot even understand the complexity of the one we have here, much less one in a novel. And in many ways, depicting a dystopia requires a careful hand to let the reader fill in blanks and details, and so avoid raising obvious questions.

In Freeset, I think, Dahlan doesn’t quite strike that balance. In Reset, we focus on the relationships and in a very general way discuss the mechanics of Tabula Rasa and the superstructure of the repressive state that Eli the Planner has made. Those are all background to the story of Aris and Metis, and between Eli and his longtime partner Eleanor. Here, though, the nitty-gritty of the state is laid bare in two tentpoles that drive the narrative.

First is the police force, and the tactics and people that compose it. This focuses primarily on Scylla (a menacing name, noting that Dahlan is good at names), who is hunting Dreamers (the rebels of the first book) and Eleanor, Eli’s former wife. Scylla starts as a Javert-like character, determined to do his best in his duty. He is in a real sense a viewpoint character for the reader who might be skeptical of the rebellion and those trying to escape Tabula Rasa, but slowly starts to see the injustice in the system, and in his own heart as well.

Apollina, his counterpart, is a much harsher character. As a Dream Interpreter, she is even closer to Eli and his inner circle, an intimate part of how his repressive regime actually works. Even more than Scylla, Apollina’s intimate use of dreams on Metis is central to Eli’s plans, and is insidious and shows the evil that is at the heart of Eli’s world. Eli may have created the Four Cities as a refuge for humanity and guided them over the last 200 years, but he has turned it into a prison, and Apollina is the character who shows that.

The second tentpole is the CDL and the Matres. Focused as I was (thanks to Dahlan’s writing), I did not consider or stop to think in Reset an essential question: Where do children come from in this society? In Freeset, Dahlan decides to answer that by having a separate, nearly autonomous microcity far away from the four, called the CDL. The CDL is a crèche where children are raised under the watchful eyes of a set of clone sisters, the Matres. We get to meet several of the Matres, and some of the students as well, as the repression and plans of Eli reach and change their world, as do unexpected visitors.

And while I found the story of the students of the CDL and the capriciousness of their lives and their attempts to escape their fate compelling, it felt a little like well-trodden ground. I did like Cass and Bastian as a younger pair to the other couples in the story. Theirs is not quite the romance of the older couples, but the impending potential tragedy of them being separated and wanting to fight it is definitely on sharp thematic point with the rest of Dahlan’s oeuvre. There are strong emotional beats here that Dahlan plays quite wonderfully.

The real problem, though, is that the more Dahlan kept adding these elements to her world, the more rickety and less plausible it seemed to become. In order for Matres to be effective, for example, they are not subject to Tabula Rasa, so that they can raise children from birth to the time they are sent into the Four Cities or college (and then the Four Cities) after having their memories wiped. Other aspects of the repressive state are put in stark relief and shown, but the cracks in the worldbuilding began to show for me. This is a world where a lot of species have died (mushrooms are a big part of the diet) and yet there are some oddities that exist, like tea and coffee. Where are they being grown, exactly? And if the wipeout of higher species is that complete, I have questions about the stability of the ecosystem, no matter how controlled by the Planner, Eli. This goes to the showing too much of a dystopia problem that I mentioned before. Food webs and ecosystems are extremely complicated and interdependent and the lack of one is devastating. As much as I have a hard time engaging with the premise, this goes right to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, which shows this problem in stark relief on his generation ship.

And tonally, I think a focus on the repression and the dark tones of the Four Cities vastly changes the look and feel of the first book (and to an extent the prequel) in a way I feel conflicted about. Reset is a very poetic book that focuses on a relationship in a dystopia, an attempt at how love can try and transcend the strongest of boundaries (even if it is not Amor Vincit Omnia). The use of the John Lennon’s song “Imagine” in that first book, for example, gives it a poetic feel that is somewhat lacking here. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of the first book, although it does try. It tries to reach for that same Amor Vincit Omnia, but doesn't get there.

The presentation of Freeset is a much more practical and less poetic feel to the dystopia that the Four Cities represented, and while that dystopia was always there, in this book, set in sharp relief, it loses some of the magic and uniqueness that made Reset so powerful for me. A totalitarian police force using drugs, dream control, drones, and other equipment? Training of children from birth? Ever tightening security and surveillance? A ruler becoming increasingly obsessed and paranoid? You probably have read this before. The problem is, within the bounds of Freeset itself, there isn’t enough distinction here to really engage me as a reader. The CDL is interesting, certainly, and its location, once revealed, is a landscape I do need to visit with my camera. But the narrower focus on the CDL and on the police takes away the uniqueness of the Four Cities as a location and an idea, and I think that ultimately weakens the book.

However, I will say that, even if the worldbuilding showed problems by overexplaining, and I had issues with the tone, the writing of the book retains the high line-by-line quality of Reset and Preset. Dahlan is an engaging, immersive author whose prose brings the characters emotional states firmly into the reader’s mind. I have not listened to the audio versions of this or the other books in the series, but given the publisher (Blackstone) and the emotional quality of Dahlan’s writing, I think this is the kind of book that maybe isn’t suited for a long car trip, but definitely one to listen to once you’ve reached your hotel room and want to get immersed.

In the end, while Reset was extraordinary, and Preset well written, Freeset turns out to be something of a disappointment for me. It is very possible that if you do like dystopias, this is going to be something you enjoy, particularly since this is not entirely the usual “young people in a YA-adjacent dystopia” novel in the model of The Hunger Games. Eli and Eleanor, Aris and Metis, and the other characters outside of the CDL are definitely not in that mold (even if one might argue that the concept of Tabula Rasa might be a way to stunt emotional growth). I don’t think there is quite enough here for me to unabashedly recommend it.

I will, however, be curious, now that the Four Cities are behind Dahlan, what new vistas and ideas she will seek to write about.


  • Interesting ideas for a dystopia that is not the usual YA

  • Strong emotional beats and themes

  • Poetic and emotionally moving writing

Reference: Dahlan, Sarina. Freeset [Blackstone, 2024].

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.