Trio Review: The SMALL SPACES series by Katherine Arden (2018-2021)

From left to right: covers for Small Spaces (2018), Dead Voices (2019), and Dark Waters (2021), all by Katherine Arden

To get in the mood for spooky season, I’ve decided to dip back into some horror reads. Katherine Arden’s shift to Middle Grade has been on my radar for a bit. What a delightful series it is. We follow the scary adventures of Ollie Adler, Coco Zintner, and Brian Battersby, three middle schoolers with different experiences of the supernatural. These books are scary but heartwarming, with tense situations and fantastic character development. The cliffhanger Dark Waters ends on makes me impatient for the next book, but they are a delight and highly recommended for fans of things like Over the Garden Wall, Crimson Peak, and urban legends coming to life.

Small Spaces (Small Spaces #1) (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Listened to the audiobook
Content warning: Dead parent (mentioned), bullying, kidnapping

Ollie Adler is returning to school after tragically losing her mother. Adjusting back to school is hard enough already, but Ollie has lost her penchant for restraint by rescuing Coco Zintner from some bullies, even befriending Brian Battersby on their way out of the principal’s office. But then a school trip goes wrong as they slip between dimensions and it’s up to the three disobedient middle schoolers to save the day.

This book is steeped in autumnal and spooky atmosphere. Arden meticulously lays out the breadcrumbs to put together that things aren’t exactly right. The folklore and history established in this little corner of Vermont adds such depth to the story arc itself. There’s the mysterious journal, the story of the scarecrows, which then bleeds into Ollie’s contemporary life which all work together for maximum scares. You’ll never look at a middle school trip to a farm the same way ever again.

I also really enjoyed the vulnerability presented here. Ollie is quite frank about her depression and grief and the ways it makes her middle school experience quite fraught. But Arden handles the experience with such compassion, and it adds a layer of feelings as the kids try to save themselves from supernatural terrors.

Dead Voices (Small Spaces #2) (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Listened to the audiobook
Content warning: Child murder, kidnapping, dead parent (mentioned)

The gang decides to go on a free visit to a ski lodge where things aren’t quite right. On the way there, Coco sees a ghost and soon after, a blizzard traps them at the lodge, and some of the other guests aren’t as they seem.

This series does a great job of addressing the “where are the parents” question with regards to supernatural and horror entities. The parents are there, and the groundwork is laid from the points of view of the kids as to why they’re not involving their parents. But they’re still kids, and they know that.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of Coco going into this book, but I did enjoy her character arc. Each character has different strengths and seeing her use her chess expertise during the haunting made for an interesting means of outwitting a villain.

Claustrophobic, chilling, and a worthy entry for people wanting a locked house horror with ghosts.

Dark Waters (Small Spaces #3) (2021)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Listened to the audiobook
Content warning: Snakes, dead parent (mentioned), starvation, poisoning, infected wound

As far as my hyperfixations go, this book has to be my favorite. It’s got urban legends, naval history, and camping in the woods. The kids are on a boat trip that goes horribly wrong when a snake-like entity capsizes the boat and traps the kids on an island. Once again, they have outwit not just the Smiling Man but also possibly Champ, the monster inhabiting Lake Champaign.

My favorite character in this entry is Phil. The way Arden navigates PTSD from hauntings is so empathetic. Yes, the evil might be defeated (for a bit) and the danger might be over, but it has lingering effects. Granted, she showed this expertise when exploring Ollie’s negative mental state in Small Spaces, and it’s good to see that kind of emotional complexity here.

I also wanted to highlight the entire historical subplot. It’s engaging and though the kids read from a diary once again, seeing the truth play out in horrifying real life makes for added thrills. Elements from Small Spaces return here in a way that adds cohesion to the series.

And as mentioned earlier, the cliffhanger at the end is making me impatient for the next entry.


4 thoughts on “Trio Review: The SMALL SPACES series by Katherine Arden (2018-2021)

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  4. Pingback: Review: EMPTY SMILES (Small Space #4) by Katherine Arden (2022) | Jo Writes Fantasy

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