Dark Waters by Katherine Arden children’s fantasy book reviewsDark Waters by Katherine Arden children’s fantasy book reviewsDark Waters by Katherine Arden

The third (but clearly not final, given its cliffhanger ending) book in the SMALL SPACES QUARTET sees our three eleven-year-old protagonists once more go up against “the Smiling Man,” an immortal fey creature who loves to make deals and play games with unsuspecting mortals. As I anticipated after Small Spaces and Dead Voices, it’s Brian’s turn to be front-and-center while Ollie and Coco take on supporting roles.

Having received a cryptic note that promises yet another round of the terrifying feud they’ve been dragged into, the trio of friends leap at the chance to take a boat ride on Lake Champlain, Vermont, a locale that seems far outside the influence of the Smiling Man and his power.

Of course, that’s a dangerous assumption to make. After a terrifying water snake sinks their boat and runs them aground on an island not marked on any map, the children must grapple with strange voices filtering through the radio, an axe-wielding madman who carries on conversations with a skeleton, and Ollie’s father slowly succumbing to a snakebite.

Brian steps up to get everyone through the ordeal, though it’s a challenge to keep everyone calm when things are going from bad to worse. Just to make things even more difficult, the children’s parents and another school friend are with them, forcing Ollie, Coco and Brian to work around everyone else’s ignorance of the true danger they’re in.

Katherine Arden children's fantasy book reviewsThe most interesting thing about this book is that having already gone up against a vindictive, powerful, reality-warping fey twice already, our protagonists are clearly suffering from no small degree of PTSD. They’re nervy and anxious, have lost all their former friends, and live in constant fear of the Smiling Man’s return. That said, their ordeal has also granted them a degree of experience, and (as another character notes) are surprisingly calm when the proverbial poop hits the fan. If you spend enough time dreading something, it almost comes as a relief when it finally arrives.

Arden captures the desolation of the island and its spooky inhabitants to great effect – like the autumnal forest and wintry ski lodge of the past two books, she’s great at creating a seasonal atmosphere (Dark Waters is set in spring, which means the fourth and final book Empty Smiles will cover summer).

All that said, this wasn’t my favourite of the three books so far, as a lot of it feels like set up for the fourth and final instalment. But much like The Empire Strikes Back, it strikes a darker tone throughout and ends with our heroes on the backfoot, which means that Empty Smiles should be firing on all cylinders. Ollie’s life is on the line and the others have been roped into one last game to set her free…

Published in May 2022. Until next time. That was the chilling promise the smiling man made to Ollie, Coco, and Brian after they last outsmarted him. And as the trio knows, the smiling man always keeps his promises. So when the lights flicker and a knock sounds at the door, there can only be one explanation: he’s back and a frightening new game is afoot. But before the three friends can unravel the smiling man’s latest nightmarish scheme, they set sail on Lake Champlain, where it’s said Vermont’s very own Loch Ness monster lives. Brian is thrilled. He hasn’t sailed since visiting family in Jamaica, and even the looming threat of the smiling man can’t put a damper on what is guaranteed to finally be a day of fun—even if it is awkward being stuck on a boat with his former best friend, Phil, and his new best friends, Coco and Ollie. But when this crew find themselves shipwrecked on a deserted island and hunted by a monster on both land and sea, fun becomes the last thing on their minds. The smiling man has at long last set the stage for a perilous rematch. But this time, Brian is ready to play.


  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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