Empty Smiles by Katherine Arden children’s fantasy book reviewsEmpty Smiles by Katherine Arden children’s fantasy book reveiwsEmpty Smiles by Katherine Arden

What is it that makes funfairs and carnivals so scary? Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari both take place in carnivals, as do a few significant chapters of Stephen King’s It and several third season episodes of Stranger Things. I even recall that the third book of L.J. Smith’s The Forbidden Game ended in an abandoned funfair.

Maybe it’s the contrast of bright lights against the darkness all around, or the fact the rides can be quite overwhelming and intimidating if you’re a child, or maybe it’s just the liminality of it all – carnivals are here today and gone tomorrow. And the clowns, of course. Clowns are terrifying.

This is all to say that the fourth and final book in Katherine Arden’s Small Spaces quartet largely takes place in a travelling carnival. Each of the four books has pertained to a specific season, and Empty Smiles takes place at the height of summer, in which our protagonists Coco, Brian and Phil are still mourning the loss of their friend Ollie, who sacrificed herself to “The Smiling Man” at the conclusion of the previous book to save all their lives.

But their immortal enemy is not done with them yet. Unbeknownst to the pre-teen heroes, Ollie is still alive and well and travelling with the Smiling Man’s carnival, stopping at various sites across America to prey on the hordes of children that pass through its gates. When a traumatized child manages to escape his clutches and reach Ollie’s friends, they realize their promised chance to win her back is soon approaching.

Yeah, Dark Waters ended on a cliff-hanger that very much upped the ante for this book, and Arden is a master at ratcheting up the suspense. When Ollie is offered another deal to stay safely in the carnival forever (the price: her friends and family forgetting her forever) or when terrifying clowns with rictus smiles carry out a home invasion, I was in a cold sweat. If anyone wants to adapt these books for television or film, you’ll be leaving an indelible mark on your child audience’s psyches.

It’s a satisfying capper to what’s been a very good series of books, in which even the inscrutable Smiling Man gets a chance to explain what he’s all about (and his answer to the question: “why do you do this?” is a fascinating one).

Katherine Arden children's fantasy book reviewsIf there’s one thing that bugs, it’s that it’s all over extremely quickly. Once Brian and Coco reach the funfair, all ready to pit themselves against their enemy and mount a rescue, I was like: “hell yes, it’s on now, let the games begin!” There appeared to be a huge chunk left of the book to carry out the grand finale of the entire series – but then it just ends about a chapter later.

But what of all those extra pages? Turns out they were just preview chapters of the last three books. Which most readers would have already read. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen a bound book devote so many pages to what is essentially pointless advertising. It took up at least one-third of the book’s length. One-third!

I can’t lie, it put a real damper on my enjoyment of the story, simply because it fooled me into thinking there would be more of it than there actually was. At the point in which I was anticipating an elaborate showdown between the characters and their mysterious foe, I was actually only a few pages out from the end. Bad form.

All that aside, it’s a decent ending to the year-long story that started back in Small Spaces. If you’re a fan of horror, or the supernatural, or terrifying games designed by mercurial fey-folk, then this is a series worth picking up.

Published in August 2022. New York Times bestselling author Katherine Arden thrills once again in the finale to the critically acclaimed, bone-chilling quartet that began with Small Spaces. It’s been three months since Ollie made a daring deal with the smiling man to save those she loved, and then vanished without a trace. The smiling man promised Coco, Brian and Phil, that they’d have a chance to save her, but as time goes by, they begin to worry that the smiling man has lied to them and Ollie is gone forever. But finally, a clue surfaces. A boy who went missing at a nearby traveling carnival appears at the town swimming hole, terrified and rambling. He tells anyone who’ll listen about the mysterious man who took him. How the man agreed to let him go on one condition: that he deliver a message. Play if you dare. Game on! The smiling man has finally made his move. Now it’s Coco, Brian, and Phil’s turn to make theirs. And they know just where to start. The traveling carnival is coming to Evansburg. Meanwhile, Ollie is trapped in the world behind the mist, learning the horrifying secrets of the smiling man’s carnival, trying everything to help her friends find her. Brian, Coco and Phil will risk everything to rescue Ollie—but they all soon realize this game is much more dangerous than the ones before. This time the smiling man is playing for keeps. The summer nights are short, and Ollie, Coco, Brian, and Phil have only until sunrise to beat him once and for all—or it’s game over for everyone.


  • 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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