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Book Review: Empty Smiles by Katherine Arden

My dear bookish friends,

With Halloween around the corner what better books are there to read than the spooky and sinister, the mysterious and scary? If you, like me, love middle grade books, AND middle grade books that are kind of scary, you probably know the Small Spaces series by Katherine Arden. If not, you REALLY have to check it out – it’s one of my favourites! Here I wanted to share my thoughts about book four in the series, Empty Smiles.

If you don’t want any spoilers about the previous books proceed with caution, but you can also check out my review of Small Spaces here.

About the Book

“New York Times bestselling author Katherine thrills once again in the finale to the critically acclaimed, spook-tacular 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.”

My Review

This is the series finale that I was looking forward to for SO long, and I loved being back in Evansburg with Brian, Coco and Phil. It took me a moment to remember what had happened in book three (which was my least favourite part of the series. It felt more like a stand-in until the real next proper part comes out; I thought it wasn’t as scary as the rest and the ending felt rushed, but I still liked it, just not as much as the rest), and I couldn’t wait to find out if the three friends would get Olivia back and how the series would be wrapped up.

Olivia is trapped in the world behind the mist, and travelling with a spooky carnival on a ghostly train that seems to drive on and on and on forever – until it stops for the next carnival. When you think about it, carnivals and fairs do walk the thin line between fun and exciting and thrilling and creepy, with the odd and very distinct old music, the too sweet sugary foods and drinks and the carnies that are always a bit too excited and seem to know more than the visitors. Then add an actual haunted house AND horrifying clowns to the mix and you have the carnival brought to you by the smiling man.

In this part of the series we are getting a tiny bit closer to finding out who he is and what is behind the facade, and in some rare moments he seemed…almost human. But then he put his eerie smile back on and that moment vanished, and I was back to being super scared of him and what he would do next.

In this instalment, Coco, Brian and Phil are sticking together super closely again which I loved – they have a super strong bond and even though there are some rare moments of insecurity – for example when Phil feels like a ‘less-good-Olivia’ and Olivia isn’t sure anymore whether her friends will actually come to her help – but they always manage to work through everything together. While their hurdles might be big they are rewarded with a friends group that definitely feels more like family than anything else, and I loved that.

The parents are a lot more involved in this book as well, and while the smiling man is using his evil powers on them again this time and makes them forget where they are and what they were supposed to do in some moments, they are also able to prove how much they want to protect their kids, and I loved the little feminist touch (dare I say it?) as the mothers are getting to fight while the fathers are literally knocked out.

I love how strong Coco has become over the course of the series, and yet, she is still the same, still Coco. Just braver, she trusts herself more, and believes that everything will be ok if they just try and don’t give up. I also love Brian and how he is keeping them all together, and how both opened their arms to welcome Phil to their group. Phil still feels a little like an outsider as he notices the other two worrying about Olivia so much, but he, too, learns to trust his new friends eventually.

Ollie is trapped on the strange train with the smiling man, but at least her journey is somewhat comfortable. She has three rooms to herself, books to read, and doesn’t have to be scared of any monster getting to her… that is, until she starts snooping around where, according to the smiling man, she shouldn’t be. I was fascinated by the two versions of the carnival. Harmless and fun during the day but creepy and dangerous at night, with dangers lurking around every corner – both for her as well as the unsuspecting children visiting the fun fair with their families. How will Ollie ever find a way out when nobody can see or hear her, and the mist keeps her trapped?

Katherine Arden has done it again – she created a seemingly normal world but gave it a shockingly creepy twist (I will never be able to look at the vendors of candy floss and into the gambling booths of fairs the same way again!). More than once it made me gasp how thin the layer between the kids’ normal everyday life and that other world is – how easy it is for the smiling man to manipulate those around them and get what he wants with just a snap of his fingers. And as you can guess from the cover, clowns take a special place in this book as well. I have always found them very suspicious and creepy (without having watched IT – no thank you😱), but these ones here are so creepy it’s out of this world (literally).

The dark and evil in this book (the whole series really) is so effortlessly so – neither the smiling man nor the clowns (nor whatever else lurks in the shadows of the haunted house) need to fight very hard to be scary and hurt the children, and so I was a bit..I don’t want to say disappointed but I did find the ending came a bit too easy. I expected a big show-down – especially because it is the last book in the series.

Now, I know this is a middle grade story and I can’t expect some epic fantasy level of a fight scene, but compared to the rest of the book the ending did seem a little rushed and too easy, the key to solve the riddle was just handed to them (quite literally, as you will see for yourself). We were also left with some rather big questions in the end that weren’t explained (I will write them down in the next paragraph so if you don’t want any spoilers you might want to skip to the end), but it didn’t feel like an open ending where you are just happily imagining your own things for the stuff that was left unsaid; it rather felt omissive in an unsatisfactory kind of way.


So, in the end, I had some big questions that I would have liked an answer to. What was the whole thing about Ollie’s watch? Did the smiling man steal it just so it wouldn’t help them again, or was there more meaning behind it? Why was he so afraid of the funhouse? What would he have seen in the mirrors? I feel like when something as big as this and so close to finding out the whole truth is presented to the reader it should be followed through and not just be forgotten about.
Why was Ollie special? The smiling man ‘stole’ plenty of children and let the clowns turn them into dolls – why was it Ollie who got the extra nice treatment with her own rooms that kept her safe? Did he like her? Why? At one point I was suspecting he knew her mother maybe, but nope lol. Was the carnival something new that he had come up with to torture the children further, or is it his side business all year round? Who or what exactly is the smiling man? Is there another evil being who is in control of him? It almost sounded like that  in the end, when he kind of admitted that he couldn’t just let Ollie go even if he wanted to, but I would have liked to learn more about the why behind that.

And just to say a bit more about the ending itself: I felt like Coco and Brian got to Ollie’s room so easily and figured out the clues in the book without having to try very hard, even though Ollie had scratched her message into the pages with her fingernails! Then they found her so quickly in the funhouse and all they had to do to get out was use the key she already had in her pocket. There wasn’t even any fighting for the second key – it was literally just there presented to them. It almost seemed as if the smiling man had given up and wanted to let them go – but why? Especially when he always tried to convince Ollie to stay? Why, when they opened the big gate at the end, didn’t he just go through as well, if that’s what was suggested and he wanted to be freed of that bigger evil power?


As you can see, I have plenty of questions left over – but that also shows how invested I was in the story, and how I wanted to find out more and more!

If you are a fan of creepy and dark middle grade stories then you will love this series as much as I did and should definitely read it! Katherine Arden has got a wonderful imagination and great storytelling skills, and this book was one of my most anticipated releases of the year. Because of the ending I felt was a bit too rushed and easy and because I have some important (and some less important) questions still I will give this book 4 out of 5 stars – it feels a bit more like 3.75 or so would be more fair, but I’m rounding up because I love this series so much.


If you read this book please let me know what you thought, and if you haven’t started this series yet, what are you waiting for??

You could start by reading my reading my review of book one, Small Spaces!

Thank you all so much for visiting my blog, and do let me know what you think of this series!


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